By M K Bhadrakumar
The United Nations Security Council statement on Syria on Wednesday marks a turning point. The unanimity of opinion over the year-long crisis in Syria is appearing for the first time; why and how this happened needs to be understood.
Russia finds itself in the driving seat in crafting the future of a key Middle East nation. This is unprecedented and it impacts the alchemy of ties between the presidency of Vladimir Putin and the West. Indeed, the Arab Spring won't be the same again.
But first, Wednesday's statement itself. It "declassified" the initial six-point proposal submitted to the Syrian authorities by the joint special envoy for the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Kofi Annan. The endorsement by the permanent five of the UN Security Council - the United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom and China - implies that the Syrian government is expected to work with Annan.
The six-point proposal demands:
In sum, Syria should undertake its political reforms openly and transparently in peaceful conditions with monitoring by the Security Council, which "will consider further steps as appropriate". The statement begins with an affirmation of the Security Council's "strong commitment" to Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity.
The Syrian situation is the stuff of much polemics today. Unsurprisingly, it is tempting to misinterpret that Russia and China "blinked" after earlier balking at backing resolutions against Damascus. The point is, Moscow has been calibrating its diplomatic position on Syria since the Russian presidential election in early March that will result in Vladimir Putin resuming the presidency on May 7.
Behind the cloud cover of rhetoric, Moscow has been probing how to steer Syria in a direction, broadly speaking, of a Yemen-like transition, while safeguarding its interests.
By March 2, Putin already began tempering Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In an interview with editors of six leading Western newspapers, Putin said:
We don't have a special relationship with Syria. We only have interests in seeing the conflict being resolved. It is up to the Syrians to decide who should run their country.Suffice to say, on the eve of the UN Security Council statement, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was willing to be drawn into a media discussion over Assad's political future. He said without diplomatic niceties, "Nobody invited him to Moscow. It's up to Assad to decide. He won't make the decision because someone from Russia asked him to."
In order to solve this problem, you cannot stand on one side of an armed conflict or on the side of one of the warring parties, sorry for the tautology. We need to look at the interests of both, get them to sit down, get them to ceasefire.
But then, Lavrov also pondered why Western and Arab politicians who pressed for Assad's resignation shouldn't first "answer the question of how it all would look and who would streamline the [power transition] process. Taking into account the great discord among the Syrian opposition forces, there is no clear answer to that question yet."
Clearly, Russian diplomacy is taking advantage of a "co-relation of forces". One, Moscow forged a close coordination with Beijing so that it didn't face diplomatic isolation. Two, as time passed, it became clear that the United States was not seeking Western military intervention in Syria.
Three, fissures began appearing among and betwixt the Western powers and their Arab allies. Four, the Arab League once again badly exposed itself as a regional organization, thanks to the obduracy of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Finally, the deadlock in the Security Council put the onus on the West to find a way to work with Russia rather than around Russia. There were anxious moments too, such as when Russia defiantly supplied Assad with weapons, dispatched warships to Syrian port of Tartus or kept up a propaganda war invoking fears of an imminent Libya-like war over Syria.
Meanwhile, ground realities vindicated Russia's policy assumptions. One, the Syrian regime showed its staying power. Two, the Syrian opposition failed to unite or project any cohesive political agenda. Three, the ascendancy of extremists in the ranks of the opposition disheartened the West, frightened Syria's "silent majority" and isolated the Saudis and Qataris who covertly rendered assistance to the radicals.
Four, Syria began edging toward a full-fledged civil war and the prospect worried the international community, especially Turkey. All in all, there are no takers today for the Saudi drive to reset Middle Eastern politics in terms of a Sunni-Shi'ite schism.
The Saudis snubbed Moscow's overtures thrice in recent weeks - King Abdullah slammed President Dmitry Medvedev; Riyadh ignored Moscow's request for consultations; and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Lavrov sat across the Arab League table at Cairo and tutored each other on the lessons of history.
Long rope to hang
But Moscow was unflapped, knowing that the Saudi agenda was not about democracy or reform but stemmed from a motiveless malignity to overthrow Assad at any cost. Besides, through all this, the Saudis ceased to matter, as the US began nudging Russia to take a lead role to bring about a peaceful transition in Syria. In essence, a kind of role reversal of what happened over Yemen.
What is the raison d'etre of this paradigm shift? It has been brilliantly explained in a report by Julien Barnes-Daicey, an experienced "Syria hand" at the European Council on Foreign Relations, titled "Syria: Towards a Political Solution". The report says:
With ... Bashar al-Assad looking unlikely to be pushed from power soon, it is becoming more urgent than ever to find a political solution ... But ... a political resolution is, at minimum, dependent on Russian acquiescence. Without pressure from Moscow, the regime will neither relent ... nor enter into a political process. Thus engaging with Russia may be the only way of halting the bloodshed.Thus, Annan is heading for Moscow "in the next few days". And Moscow too is moving toward a new position and putting its weight behind Annan. In a pre-recorded interview broadcast over Kommersant radio on Tuesday, Lavrov was openly critical of the Syrian regime.
Kofi Annan should therefore begin a political process that gives Russia a lead role and includes direct negotiations with the regime, which are not preconditioned on Assad's immediate demise ... Europe, for its part, must solidly back Annan's efforts.
All this doesn't mean that Moscow is "dumping" Assad or that the Syrian crisis is moving toward a solution. To be the devil's advocate, Washington is probably giving Moscow a long rope to hang itself. Time will tell.
The fact remains that Moscow is not the only patron saint hovering above the Damascus skyline. Tehran cannot easily abandon the Syrian regime. Baghdad also plays a complicated role and it is about to assume the chairmanship of the Arab League. Then, there are the ubiquitous "non-state actors" of the Middle East tapestry.
Thus, things will have to move at some point in the direction of forming a contact group of stakeholders. While Russia has specific interests in Syria (which may fall within the ambit of its evolving relationship with the West) and is doubtless highly motivated, when it comes to the brass tacks of a political transition in Damascus, much will depend on regional players.
It is difficult to underestimate the tenacity of regional players such as Turkey or Iran to safeguard their interests. Interestingly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Tehran on March 27 ahead of the meeting of the "Friends of Syria" in Istanbul on April 1.
A core issue remains, namely, the absence of a sustained diplomatic engagement of Iran so as to bridge the huge gulf of distrust. It means clearing the air that the West's agenda is actually to force regime change in Iran. The West must manifestly show the willingness to engage Iran comprehensively on the range of regional security issues that affect its core interests....
But, thanks to Lebanon's uber-neocon, the resord is set straight;"... the United Nations Security Council delivered a diplomatic setback to Bashar Assad of Syria on Wednesday, unanimously embracing efforts by Kofi Annan, the former secretary general, to negotiate a cease-fire in the year-old Syrian conflict, funnel aid to victims and begin a political transition.In a document known as a presidential statement, the 15-member council expressed its “gravest concern .....”The statement said Mr. Annan’s plan would “facilitate a Syrian-led political transition...” closely resembles an Arab League proposal (WHAT? Read Young below!) that Mr. Assad has rejected. It calls for all combatants to immediately stop fighting, for the military to withdraw from populated areas, for a United Nations-supervised truce and for the provision of humanitarian assistance, the release of all arbitrarily detained people, freedom of movement for journalists and freedom for peaceful demonstrations. (The Times ignores the statement's call for 'dialogue' (rejected by the opposition & the government!)...'
"...Last week, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, made a disconcerting revelation. Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy to Syria, is not discussing the departure of Syrian Bashar Assad from office. "I can assure you that there was no talk about Assad's departure," Mr Lavrov declared in an interview, describing what Mr Annan had told him.If that's true, then what precisely is Mr Annan's mandate? When the former United Nations secretary general was appointed, we were told that his assignment was to implement the Arab League plan for Syria drafted in January. This calls for Mr Al Assad to hand over power to his first vice president, which would be followed by the formation of national unity government that would seek to end the violence by withdrawing the army from cities and releasing prisoners.Mr Annan is being buffeted by the bargaining all around him. Recently, Russia and the Arab League, after a tense meeting in Cairo, agreed to several principles for resolving the Syrian crisis. However, behind a facade of concord, the two sides had different priorities.Mr Lavrov, at a press conference with the Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, listed the following principles: agreement to end the violence, whatever the source; the establishment of an impartial monitoring mechanism; the rejection of foreign intervention; and the removal of obstacles blocking the distribution of humanitarian aid to Syrians.The last principle was by far the most ambiguous and open to contradictory interpretations. As the Russian foreign minister put it, Russia and the Arab League had agreed to strongly support the Annan mission so that it could initiate a dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition - as Mr Lavrov added, one based on references "accepted" by the United Nations and the Arab League.Sheikh Hamad repeated the same principles, but used a slightly different formulation on the final point, mentioning the references "adopted" by the United Nations and the Arab League. Since only the Arab League has actually adopted decisions on Syria, while the Security Council has been stalemated, this could have been a subtle way of redefining the accord as Arab governments construe it.Word games aside, what the Arab League and Russia agreed, like the Security Council statement being prepared to bolster Mr Annan in his task, will mean different things to different governments. Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with a large majority of the Syrian opposition, still consider his mediation as a lever to get rid of Mr Al Assad. Russia, in contrast, views it as a device allowing the Syrian president to regain legitimacy and remain in power............The core of the problem is that once a dialogue begins, Assad will necessarily represent the Syrian regime. The logic of such negotiations will ensure that the president stays in office, since what kind of national dialogue can take place that sets as a precondition the eventual exclusion of one of the parties? And if Mr Al Assad fails to vacate the presidency, then the Arab League plan is meaningless.That is what the Russians are wagering on, and Mr Annan's remarks suggest he is closer to Moscow than to the Arab states. No wonder Mr Lavrov is so keen to assist Mr Annan, while advocating humanitarian aid. The Obama administration, as well, favours a political solution, ruling out arming the Syrian opposition. The French agree, while Turkey seems unsure of what to do. Ankara's warning last week that it might set up a safety zone inside Syria should be taken seriously, but without international cover, such a move could backfire.If Mr Al Assad dominates the Syrian dialogue, and the opposition is made to participate, the president will regain the initiative.....Mr Annan is close to selling out the Syrian opposition. If he is about to undermine the Arab League plan, then the Arab states should insist on tightening his terms of reference to their satisfaction. Otherwise, they must withdraw their endorsement of the envoy.Of course, the Arabs won't dare openly do such a thing. Instead, they will arm the opposition, hoping to weaken Mr Al Assad on the ground......."