With Russia calling for an international conference on Syria and Kofi Anan proposing the creation of a contact group to deal with the crisis, such ideas may be merely putting off the inevitable confrontation, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad after Friday prayers in Kafranbel, near Idlib
"France and Russia are discussing preparations for the post-Bashar Al-Assad phase," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week after meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
"The Russians are not insisting on keeping Al-Assad in power and believe he is a tyrant and murderer and that linking themselves to this dictator will weaken them. However, they are sensitive about who will succeed him if he leaves power," Fabius said.
The statement coincided with statements by US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Noland, who said that the US and Russia were also discussing political transition in Syria after Al-Assad steps down from power.
However, shortly after Fabius's statement, Lavrov denied that there had been talks with the West on the post-Al-Assad phase in Syria, saying that nothing of the kind had taken place and could not have done because it would be in contradiction with Moscow's position.
Lavrov said that Russia was not interested in regime change in Damascus, whether through the UN Security Council or through political negotiations.
The Russian declarations were followed by statements from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that US intelligence data had shown that Russian attack helicopters were on their way to Syria, though the Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to deny the allegations.
Moscow said that it had not sent any new military helicopters to Syria. The ones that were being delivered had been taken in for essential maintenance, it said.
Alexey Pushkov, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament, said that the West was using Russia's refusal to censure Al-Assad as an excuse for its failure to resolve the Syrian crisis.
"The West has no policy whatsoever on Syria, and Russia's position is helpful because it is using it to blame Russia and claim it is blocking a solution," Pushkov said. "What the West is saying doesn't make sense. It wants Al-Assad to leave, but how? What will happens after that?"
Pushkov warned that civil war could break out in Syria as a result of western intervention, in a similar fashion to what happened in Iraq.
However, the Syrian opposition said that Russia, which has thus far blocked foreign intervention in Syria, was heavily influencing the crisis, allowing the regime to remain in power despite international pressure. The opposition also criticised what it said was Russian interference in Syrian domestic affairs, after the Russian foreign minister said some months ago that Russia "could not accept" Sunni rule in Syria.
Some 15,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began 15 months ago, according to the Syrian Human Rights Network, an NGO, but this has not changed Russian objections to the passage of a UN Security Council resolution censuring the Syrian regime.
The country's opposition has described the Russian position as "contradictory," with a leading figure in the opposition Coordination Body of the Forces for Democratic Change (CBFDC) bluntly saying that the "Russians are lying to us."
"When our delegation visited Moscow at the invitation of the Russian government, we heard encouraging words, and they told us that they were not committed to the regime, but they wanted to see the state remain intact and security be restored," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"They agreed that the military and security forces were using excessive force, that they would accept a scenario similar to the one in Yemen [in which the former president had stepped down as a result of pressure], and that they would not allow the regime to commit more crimes. Yet, the next day they made the contradictory statement that the opposition was the one committing the crimes and that they would not allow the regime to collapse."
At a recent news conference, Lavrov said that Moscow was not opposed to Al-Assad leaving power, and that the reason why the violence was continuing in Syria was because of the actions of armed groups spreading chaos. Lavrov added that "armed terrorist elements" had targeted Russian citizens in Syria, had killed a Christian priest, and had bombed churches and ambulances.
Western observers said that Lavrov's statements were untrue and that not a single Russian citizen working in Syria had been targeted and that revolutionaries had not bombed churches or Christian places of worship.
The side targeting ambulances and preventing them from helping the injured was the regime's security forces, observers said, noting that Russia was Al-Assad's strongest supporter. Had it not been for Moscow, the regime would have collapsed a long time ago, they said.
At the beginning of this month Russia unexpectedly proposed holding an international conference on Syria, in order to pave the way for holding political dialogue in Syria without preconditions.
Moscow said that the gathering should be attended by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU, the Arab League (AL) and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), as well as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Although some western countries welcomed the idea, they objected to Iran's presence at the proposed conference. The Syrian opposition also rejected Iranian participation, describing Tehran as being part of the problem and not part of the solution and of being implicated in helping the regime kill its own citizens.
The violence has escalated in Syria over the past few months, after government forces and their militia allies carried out attacks using light and heavy weapons in attempts to recover territory overrun by opposition forces.
After the opposition abandoned the ceasefire mediated by UN and AL envoy Kofi Anan recently, the human rights group Amnesty International reported that Syrian forces were committing war crimes in Syria, while Human Rights Watch, an American NGO, accused Al-Assad's troops of using rape and other forms of sexual violence during the uprising.
The UN-sponsored peace plan, negotiated by Anan, has now started to collapse despite Russia's support for it and the fact that there is no alternative plan from the West. Major-General Robert Mood, head of the UN observers in Syria, said this week that he had decided to suspend the mission in Syria because of the escalating violence, blaming both regime troops and opposition forces.
The US, Britain and France believe that the time has now come for the Security Council to take more assertive steps to impose the Anan plan, indicating that there is now the possibility of creating a no-fly zone over Syria.
Alternatively, a UN Security Council resolution could be passed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which permits the use of force in implementing Security Council resolutions.
Observers believe that Moscow wants to be seen as the peacemaker in Syria, or at least to play a key role in resolving the crisis, also wanting to become the patron of any new regime in Damascus. Russia could be trying to "trade off" the Syrian crisis for other international issues as part of a bigger deal that could help restore Russia's role as a major world power and be recognised as such by the US and NATO members, they said.
The international community is still debating the idea of an international conference on Syria, though without any clear date in mind, while Russia and the US are continuing to exchange ideas about the future of a diplomatic solution based on the Anan plan. Some diplomats have suggested that a conference could be held at the end of this month.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to save his nearly defeated plan, Anan suggested forming a new contact group on the Syrian crisis that would include the West, Russia and China. Several key regional countries were also expected to join the group. The UN is also considering holding its own international conference at the end of June.
Russia and the UN therefore appear to be competing over which conference should be held, and the Syrian opposition believes that by sponsoring an international conference Russia may be trying to transfer the Syrian issue from UN auspices, placing it under the authority of an international conference instead.
Were this conference able to recommend a solution, the Syrian regime would have difficulty refusing it, especially if Iran, China, Iraq and Lebanon were also participating. These countries all also support the Syrian regime.
However, removing the issue from the UN may be impossible, given western and Arab support for regime change in Damascus. The conference Russia is proposing is undefined, though its aim is to create a political platform for foreign parties who could influence the various players in Syria.
Opposition sources say that Russia is trying to give the Syrian regime more time to foil the uprising through its use of excessive military force. At the same time, it is trying to block any Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter by holding a conference that would set up committees, issue recommendations, and schedule other meetings and follow-up committees that could take months before being declared a failure, the opposition says.
Syrian protesters raised banners this week reading "Russia is killing us" and "Russia is the No.1 Enemy of the Syrian people," while cartoonists caricatured Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov.
The opposition says that Russia is trying to restore its glory at the expense of the Syrian people, and that it may now have sabotaged five decades of friendship with them. Russia has failed in its policy on Syria, opposition spokesmen say, having backed the wrong horse.