Thursday, February 9, 2012

Russia conspires to salvage Assad rule

What strange tea are the Russians brewing in their diplomatic samovar? Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited Damascus on Tuesday with the foreign intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov, and made a statement afterward that was, at best, ambiguous. That’s not a good sign when Syrians are crying for clarity.

Following his meeting with Bashar Assad, Lavrov declared that the Syrian president “was completely committed to the task of stopping violence, regardless of where it may come from.” He said that Russia was ready “to help foster the swiftest exit from the crisis on the basis of positions set out in the Arab League initiative.” The foreign minister also stated that the Assad regime supported an expanded effort by the Arab League to monitor events in Syria, and said that Moscow would continue to work with Syrian opposition groups.

Meanwhile, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, emphasized that the Syrian opposition had to accept a dialogue with Syria’s regime, otherwise the clause in the Arab League plan for the country referring to the formation of a national-unity government would have no value. Lavrov’s and Churkin’s remarks came amid reports in Le Figaro that Russian experts are helping revamp Syria’s Baath Party, in preparation for a new Constitution that will supposedly authorize multiparty elections, limit presidential terms, and do away with Article 8 of the current Constitution that designates the Baath as the “leader of state and society” in Syria.

There had been speculation on Tuesday that Lavrov might advise Assad to consent to a Yemen scenario, whereby the Syrian president would leave office and usher in a smooth transition. Nothing of the sort happened. On the contrary, the foreign minister appeared to endorse the so-called reform proposals of the Syrian regime, and, like his U.N. ambassador, focused on the dialogue dimension of the Arab League plan while ignoring the demand that Assad step down.

It is increasingly apparent that Moscow favors a solution that would preserve the core of Assad rule, behind the facade of a bogus transformation. The Russians seek the establishment of an anemic national-unity government in which compliant members of the Syrian opposition would be integrated, along with constitutional changes that would be, in practice, cosmetic. To bludgeon the opposition and make it more pliable, the Russians recently supplied Syria with arms for the military offensive of the past week. The idea that Assad must depart is not on the table, even if Moscow may not have entirely ruled that out as a contingency in the event its current strategy fails.

Particularly intriguing was the fact that Fradkov accompanied Lavrov on his trip. Why did he? According to Le Figaro, the intelligence chief may have been in Damascus because Russia wishes to reopen a listening post it controlled during the Cold War on Mount Qassioun, behind Damascus. It would be in character for the Russians to use Assad’s tribulations as leverage to gain concessions. At the same time, intelligence chiefs generally travel to foreign capitals to meet with their counterparts or to brief foreign leaders on intelligence in their possession, or both. This adds weight to the claim, again in Le Figaro, that Russian military and intelligence personnel have been operating in Syria in recent months, to help neutralize the uprising.

The sole political instrument available to initiate a dialogue between Assad and the opposition is the Arab League plan. That explains why Lavrov and Churkin have been trying to inject new life into it, and why the Syrian regime is now seemingly interested in reinvigorating, even expanding, the Arab observer mission. Without the Arab framework, the purported reform program fashioned by Russia and Assad would take place in a vacuum – devoid of local, regional and international legitimacy. If their national-unity government gambit is to see the light of day, the Arab plan must first be revived.

Almost immediately, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in separate venues, sought to undermine Russian actions. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Ankara was preparing a new initiative on Syria “with those countries that stand by the people, not the Syrian government.” This was an implicit slight at Russia. At the same time, Gulf Cooperation Council governments, led by Saudi Arabia, recalled their ambassadors in Damascus while expelling Syria’s envoys from their own capitals. The measures were designed to reiterate that there can be no solution with Assad in power.

After remaining quiet on Syria during much of the past year, the Saudis are mobilized. They were instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the Arab observer mission once they realized that it was being exploited by the Syrian regime. And they will play a vital role in blocking the Russian-Syrian project to suffocate the Syrian revolt. Riyadh evidently has an ally in Turkey, as both countries see an opportunity to prevent the survival of a regime they both regard as a threat, while also undercutting Iran’s influence in the Levant.

The United States and the Europeans appear to be on the same wavelength as the Saudis and Turks. As far as all these countries are concerned, Bashar Assad is history, and Russian intransigence will not alter that. We should watch for new diplomatic attempts at the U.N., perhaps via the General Assembly, to circumvent a Russian veto. And don’t put it beyond the Gulf states, with Turkish acquiescence and American and European assistance, to accelerate the arming, financing, and training of Syrian army deserters.

Moscow cannot take on the world, even less so when the man they hope to save has perpetuated abominable massacres of civilians. Syria is not Grozny. If it’s either civil war or a Russian plan to salvage Assad rule, many Arab states and the West might tolerate the former. That could be dangerous, but not less so than the Russians’ illusion that Syrians will stomach more of Bashar Assad after all that he’s done.

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