There are growing signs that Russia, the US and a number of other countries are now working behind the scenes to bring the Syrian conflict to a negotiated end.
The latest indication that something is afoot came on Saturday when a source at the Arab League said international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is planning to visit Syria, probably « during the coming few days » and is expected to meet « some opposition factions » as well as President Assad and government officials.
Brahimi’s visit has not been officially confirmed but if it does go ahead the likelihood is that he will want to put some options on the table and test Syrian (government and opposition) reactions to them, as part of the process of assembling a « transition » package.
The problem with such a package – until now – has been differences of opinion over Assad’s fate. While the rebels, the US and many other countries insisted that Assad must go, Russia seemed unwilling to contemplate any package that required Assad’s departure.
That has now changed. Russia no longer views Assad as essential to Syria’s future, though it is not directly calling for him to go. It says it won’t pass on messages from countries offering him asylum, though it doesn’t object to such offers being made in other ways. The New York Times reports:
“Some countries in the region have turned to us and suggested, ‘Tell Assad we are ready to fix him up’, ” the [Russian] foreign minister, Sergey V Lavrov, told reporters …
“And we answered, ‘What do we have to do with it? If you have such plans, approach him directly.’
“If there are people wishing to give him some kind of guarantees, be our guest,” he said … “Whether this will end the carnage – that is far from obvious. It is not obvious at all.”
First indications of a shift in Russia’s position came at the beginning of this month, around the time of President Putin’s visit to Turkey. Although Russia and Turkey had not seen eye-to-eye on Syria up to then, Putin described their assessments of the situation as « identical ». He said they agreed on “what kind of situation we should achieve” but still disagreed on how to settle the conflict.
Later, Vladimir Vasilyev, a key ally of Putin in the Russian parliament, was quoted as saying: « We have shared and do share the opinion that the existing government in Syria should carry out its functions. But time has shown that this task is beyond its strength. »
The first week of December also brought signs that the American and Russian positions on Syria are beginning to converge – at least on some points. On December 7, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, held a three-way meeting in Dublin which appeared unusually cordial.
Russia now seems to recognise that Assad’s eventual defeat is a distinct possibility, if not a near certainty. It hasn’t publicly abandoned him but says its concern now is the future of Syria rather than Assad himself.
That is a position the US can also relate to, because what scares Washington most is the prospect of turmoil – especially the jihadist kind – in a post-Assad Syria.
So, if there is movement on the diplomatic front, how far has it actually got? A report yesterday in the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Alawsat, citing the Syrian National Coalition, claimed that the US and Russia already have the bones of a formula.
The plan would involve Assad stepping down, though “sticking points in this agreement include the precise mechanism of Assad’s departure and handover of power”.
The key question, of course, is whether Assad would agree to step down and, according to Asharq Alawsat he is being offered an inducement: either he can become « a partner in transferring power » and have the benefit of « international protection » (presumably immunity from prosecution as well as safe passage), or lose that protection by staying out of the negotiating process.
The report goes on to say that Assad “has expressed his readiness to negotiate and leave power, accompanied by 142 members of his entourage”. Expressing « readiness » to negotiate is not much of a commitment, though, and Assad has never been much of a negotiator. He may still prefer to fight on till the bitter end.
Considering the carnage in Syria, there are also many who find the idea of granting protection/immunity to Assad and his associates thoroughly repugnant, though that might be tempered if it brought a clear end to the conflict and to his regime.
As often happens with diplomatic processes, bits of information are leaking out from sources who do not want to be identified and who may well have an axe to grind. Whether or not the leaks are accurate, their existence can be read as evidence of manoeuvrings behind the scenes.
While it is possible that at this stage the manoeuvrings amount to little more than exchanges of ideas, we do have one apparent « fact » of intriguing precision: 142, the number of regime figures who would supposedly leave power with international protection.
This suggests that someone, somewhere, has at least drawn up a list of names (a list that would presumably have to be accepted by both Assad and the rebels, and which might be in Brahimi’s briefcase next time he visits Damascus).
The number 142 may also give a pointer to diplomatic thinking about the likely nature of a political transition. It is said to include « 108 military and security figures who are responsible for issuing orders to the armed and security forces to kill Syrians » while the other 34 are said to be members of the Assad family.
What this significantly omits is civilian Baathist politicians – opening up the possibiity of some role for them in a transitional government. That could include the much-speculated-about « Sharaa option » with Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim who has been mostly invisible throughout the conflict, temporarily assuming the presidency.
In the science-fiction story The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a computer called Deep Thought spends seven-and-a-half million years working on « the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything » and comes up with a disappointing answer: the number 42.
Add 100 to that, and you might – just might – have the answer to the Ultimate Question of Syria. On the other hand, it could prove equally meaningless. Time will tell, but hopefully within weeks rather than millions of years.