Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Are we there yet?

Some Syrian opposition figures believe that Russia's position may be changing and that Moscow may soon agree to the starting of a transitional phase, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Click to view caption
A Free Syrian Army fighter comforts a child wounded by Syrian Army artillery shelling, at Dar Al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo

Russia is expected to take steps over the next few weeks that some Syrian opposition figures and western diplomats see as signs of a shift in the country's position on the crisis in Syria. The Syrian opposition has even started to build on such a transformation by claiming that Moscow, for more than 18 months vetoing international action in the UN Security Council, has begun to accept the removal of President Bashar Al-Assad from power as part of a solution to the Syrian crisis.

Over recent weeks, Russia has exerted efforts to apply the Geneva Declaration on Syria and urged the Security Council to adopt the declaration, issued on 20 June, converting it into a binding ceasefire on all parties as the first step towards a political resolution of the crisis.

Russian efforts to get the declaration accepted at the UÅN would probably serve the Syrian opposition, were the ceasefire to be binding and not a solo effort. Moscow's initiative has been accompanied by Russian-French consultations in Paris, with French sources leaking reports that the Russians have agreed to discuss everything pertaining to Syria, including the removal of the president.

Meanwhile, Russia is also taking diplomatic steps on the ground, with Russian President Vladimir Putin planning to visit Turkey to discuss the Syrian crisis until the grounding of a Syrian passenger plane last week by Turkish authorities under the pretext it was carrying Russian military equipment caused him to cancel the trip.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov still intends to visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the beginning of next month in order to meet with counterparts there, as well as to meet with ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in Riyadh.

Moscow, up to now the Syrian regime's strongest ally, has now opened its doors to the Syrian opposition factions and welcomed Arab and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to discuss how to handle the crisis.

Statements by Russian officials have also started to shift, with Lavrov justifying his country's position on the Syrian crisis by saying that Russia was defending the principles of the UN Charter in its attempts to resolve the Syrian conflict and not defending the Syrian regime.

His deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov, said that establishing a no-fly zone over Syria was also "open for discussion" as long as there was agreement on the details of this. Previously, Russia had adamantly refused to consider this option.

Bogdanov added that keeping Al-Assad in power "is not a prerequisite to solving the Syrian crisis" and that Moscow was not adamant about supporting Al-Assad "because he is not Russia's president". He said that Russia could deal with the Muslim Brotherhood if it came to power in Syria, "as long as the Syrian people support it".

Fayez Sarrah, a member of the opposition, believes the reason behind the transformation in Russia's position "is linked to the US now almost concluding its elections season, which would free Washington from distraction and allow it to take a more courageous position on Syria."

Sarrah added that Moscow would also have to bear the Syrian burden after the recent collapse of the Iranian currency meant that Tehran would have to reduce, if not halt, its support for the Syrian regime.

He added that the position of Syria's neighbours, as well as the half a million Syrian refugees, was further pressure on Russia's position. "The deteriorating security situation on the border between Syria and its neighbours, like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Israel, is also critical. Russia cannot continue to resist the pressure put on it by the US, the West and the Arab states to pressure the Syrian regime to engage in a political solution."

Meanwhile, the situation inside Syria itself is worsening, and the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) has started to take over security headquarters and military bases, especially in the north, with the government beginning to lose control over areas of the country.

At the same time, Turkey and NATO are having emergency coordination talks after the Syrian military bombed Turkish villages in preparation for a new phase in the Syrian crisis. There is a possibility that the two will cooperate on establishing a buffer zone on the Turkish border, believed to be allowed as a result of secret agreements between Turkey and Syria.

In the meantime, observers believe the recent $4.2 billion Russian arms deal with Iraq may be an attempt by Tehran to persuade Moscow not to abandon the regime in Damascus and compensate it for its exclusion in Libya. It may also be intended to compensate Russia for lost trade with the Arab states, especially the Gulf countries, if they decrease bilateral trade in response to Russia's position on Syria.

Russia wants to unify the efforts of outside players to end the violence in Syria and to launch a national dialogue to reach consensus on a future Syrian regime based on the understandings reached in the Geneva Declaration.

While Moscow has refused to countenance Al-Assad stepping down as a first step towards consensus, some Russian officials today indicate that his leaving power could be the conclusion of a process of dialogue.

This is a sticking point for the country's opposition, which insists that Al-Assad must resign first and that the military and security officials who gave orders to kill the demonstrations must be put on trial before any transitional phase begins.

For the time being, Russia is almost alone in supporting the Syrian regime. The Arab League has closed the door on discussion of political reform and proposed that Al-Assad should transfer power to his deputy. It has also suggested that the Yemeni model of a transfer of power could guarantee a safe exit for Al-Assad and his family.

The West has also made its position clear, and most European and US officials insist that Al-Assad must step down in order for the transitional phase to begin under international supervision.

Moscow's support for the regime has caused it diplomatic, political and even military embarrassment.

Political analysts propose several reasons why Russia has up to now been supporting the Syrian regime, including fears of the ascension of Political Islam to power in Syria after the regime is toppled.

Others reasons include Russian fears of Turkey's expanding regional role if the Syrian regime is overthrown, as well as Russian reluctance to lose its last ally and a key geo-political player in the Middle East.

Russia may also be fearful of the Arab Spring uprisings reaching post-Soviet Central Asia and Russia itself, which is why Moscow may be trying to thwart the last and most bloody revolution of the Arab Spring.

Recent developments, such as the FSA and armed opposition gaining ground and strength in Syria, have led to fears that the crisis will spill over into neighbouring states or that sectarian war will erupt in the region, and there have been concerns about the fate of minorities and Russia's strategic interests in the Arab world.

Such developments require courageous decisions to be taken by Russia's leaders, with western diplomats saying that the only party that can change Russia's mind is the US, though the latter is currently distracted by the presidential race.

The conflicting signals being given out by Russia have encouraged many to believe that Russia is shifting its position on the Syrian crisis, with observers saying that Moscow cannot continue on the same course of supporting the Al-Assad regime and bearing the brunt of the political and financial ramifications on the international and regional stage.

While it is difficult to predict how far the Russians will move, regional, international and players inside Syria are seeking to influence Moscow in the belief that the more pressure they exercise, the greater and quicker the shift in Russia's position will be.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 1119 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Economy | Region | Focus | Opinion | Press review | Readers' corner | Culture | Features | Heritage | Youth page | Sports | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map