Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

A change in Moscow?

Russia’s position appears to have changed on the Syrian crisis, which could mean it is now distancing itself from the regime

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the light of Russian statements last week, the Syrian opposition and some European sources believe that there could be a Russian-US deal in the offing to resolve the Syrian crisis, or alternatively that Moscow is now starting to abandon the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that it has supported since the beginning of the uprising some 20 months ago, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus.

Russia has vetoed all UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime and seeking to compel it to end the military crackdown against the Syrian people.

The Syrian opposition and observers cite signals that the Russians have been giving for the first time, some of them weak and open to interpretation and others stronger and more direct. These signals indicate that the Russians may feel they are on the verge of defeat because of their support for the Syrian regime and that they are losing their last foothold in the Middle East.

They may now feel they will have to revise their position in order to salvage what they can before they lose everything.

For the first time, Moscow has blamed the regime as well as the opposition for the killings in Syrian. In the past, it always insisted that the armed opposition was the cause of most of the deaths among Syrian civilians, but Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said last week that “we can equally blame President Al-Assad and the opposition because there is blood on both [their hands]. They share the blame for what is occurring.”

Also for the first time, Moscow said it was not linked to Al-Assad through friendship or a special relationship. “We do not have special relations with President Bashar Al-Assad like those between the [former] USSR and his father [former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad],” Medvedev said.

“These relations do not exist now.” Medvedev said that ties between Moscow and Damascus “are routine and pragmatic” and “it is not our job to support such regimes no matter what the cost.”

Medvedev said that the Syrian regime’s human rights record was appalling, and the statements seem to have surprised the Syrian regime even more than they did the country’s opposition.

The official Syrian media said that Medvedev was “cowering in the face of French badgering”, when describing Moscow’s position, as opposed to France’s strong and public demand for the ouster of the Syrian regime.

There have been other signs, including leaks by senior US officials and confirmed by Western diplomats, about covert contacts between Washington and Moscow on Syria after the fall of the Al-Assad regime.

These show that Russia is beginning to believe that Al-Assad’s ouster is part of the solution of the Syrian crisis, and the Arab and Western media have reported that Russian officials tried to contact their American counterparts even during the recent Thanksgiving holiday in the US to discuss the crisis in the country.

There have also been reports that Russia is trying to secure gains for the Syrian opposition that it supports, such as the National Coordination Committee (NCC) inside Syria, to guarantee that this will be part of the transitional phase in the country.

This would explain why an NCC delegation was invited to Moscow by the Russian Foreign Ministry last week without any obvious new developments to discuss.

Before the visit, NCC leaders said they did not know the purpose of the visit, but thought that the Russians had new proposals to help end the Syrian crisis. The rest of the opposition strongly criticised the NCC for going to Russia.

“We went to Moscow at a very difficult time for Syria because of the escalation in the violence,” Haitham Manaa, general coordinator of the NCC outside Syria, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“There has been no response to pleas for basic humanitarian needs to be fulfilled, and there has been the slow but effective destruction of the military and the state administrative institutions amidst extremist political and military positions. Meanwhile, the role of the UN is being marginalised.”

“We are at a point where we cannot act without mediators and safety valves to soften the impact of the brutal confrontation between the sides in Syria. We went to Moscow in order to find a solution that the five members of the Security Council could agree on. No society thinking about tomorrow would agree to bury a possible political solution on purpose.”

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been voicing similar sentiments.

Before a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey on Monday, Erdogan said Russia “holds the key to resolving the Syrian crisis” and noted that a change in Moscow’s position would affect the region. He also renewed calls for a no-fly zone over Syria “for the sake of Syrian civilians”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the NCC visit by saying that the Syrian opposition that visited Moscow “do not agree on the solutions of the other opposition parties,” a reference to the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSR), both of which reject dialogue and demand the overthrow of the regime.

Lavrov said the NCC was seeking a solution based on dialogue “that would pave the way for a transitional phase and the reforms that are sorely needed.”

At the end of the NCC visit, there were other indicators that Russia was repositioning itself. The opposition said that Moscow had promised it would ask the Syrian regime to stop using heavy weapons to attack the country’s cities, and that it was willing to support a UN resolution against the Syrian regime on the condition that it did not reference Chapter VII of the UN Charter that permits the use of force in implementing such resolutions.

The opposition viewed Russia’s offers as a “half step” towards change.

Although he criticised the NCSR, Putin sent an envoy to meet it and Russia stepped up its announcements that it was not standing at Al-Assad’s side even though it had blocked UN support to the armed opposition.

Lavrov indicated that Moscow would not intervene militarily to save Al-Assad, despite the importance of Syria to Russia’s strategic position in the Middle East. “Russia would never become involved in an armed conflict in Syria,” Lavrov said.

While there is optimism that Russia is realigning itself on Syria, some caution against any over-enthusiasm, arguing that only a change in the military equilibrium on the ground in favour of the armed opposition, or a clear sign that Al-Assad is close to falling, will change Moscow’s mind.

Such commentators believe that the meetings between Russian officials and the opposition do not indicate any change in Moscow’s policies, but rather are an attempt to draw the opposition into dialogue with the regime. Putin will never change his approach on Syria, commentators say, since he does not want to admit defeat.

Only Russia today supports the Syrian regime wholeheartedly, and the Arab League has closed the door on the possibility of political reform in Syria and has proposed transferring Al-Assad’s powers to the country’s vice president.

It has also suggested the use of the “Yemeni model” for transition through the provision of “safe exit” for Al-Assad and his family on the model of what earlier happened in Yemen.

However, the western powers insist that Al-Assad must step down first in order for the transitional phase to begin under international supervision, while the opposition wants to see Al-Assad, together with senior military and security officials, placed on trial.

Some observers believe that the reason behind Russian wavering is linked to developments on the ground in Syria, since opposition forces are now in control of large swathes of the country.

There are also worries about a bigger regional role for Turkey, especially since NATO intends to deploy a patriot missile system on the country’s southern borders. At the same time, there has been growing international recognition of the Syrian opposition, which has now appointed ambassadors to several European capitals.

There is concern that a sectarian war could break out in the region, or that the crisis could spill over into neighbouring countries, perhaps even into the central Asian countries and Russia itself.

The opposition argues that Russia must recognise that the Syrian regime is no longer able to rule the country even if it succeeds in suppressing the revolution.

Some 40,000 people have been killed and a similar number have disappeared, while millions have been harmed by the military crackdown orchestrated by the regime.

Moscow must radically change its position, the opposition says, if it wants to save what remains of its interests with the Syrian people. If it does not do so, it will lose its last ally in the Middle East.

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