Monday,19 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Monday,19 February, 2018
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

The Russian solution

Moscow is racing against time to find a viable political solution to the Syrian crisis in cooperation with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is continuing his efforts to find a viable solution to the Syrian crisis, despite having failed to propose a new initiative to replace the Geneva Initiative that his predecessor, Kofi Annan, put forward last June and seemingly being disappointed by the failure of the international community to agree on a way out from the crisis.

As the US hesitates to intervene to end the 22-month-old crisis, Brahimi has been approaching the issues from a similar perspective to that adopted by Russia and the Syrian regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad. As a result, the opposition has been accusing him of being an ally of the Al-Assad regime and has called for his resignation.

In statements made from Moscow, where Brahimi was discussing the crisis with members of the Russian government, he said that the Syrians had to choose between “hell” or a “political solution” and that “there is no other choice.”

The opposition rejected these options, saying that the regime’s continuing in power was “hell itself” and that it was open to any plan or political negotiations on the condition that Al-Assad stepped down from power and the regime figures responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of people were brought to justice.

One day after his incendiary statement, Brahimi said he had “suggestions” that the international community could adopt, adding that these were based on the Geneva Initiative and included the imposition of a ceasefire, the formation of a government with a genuine mandate, and the taking of steps towards presidential or parliamentary elections.

At the same time, he issued a warning that Syria could become “another Somalia” if a solution was not found.

After meeting with Al-Assad and officials from Russia, Turkey and Egypt, Brahimi insinuated that Al-Assad could remain in power until the end of his tenure in 2014, apparently forgetting that the Geneva Initiative had failed on precisely this issue of Al-Assad’s fate.

For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Al-Assad did not intend to leave power and could not be forced to abandon his office. Al-Assad’s departure should not be a precondition for a political process to begin, he said, and the refusal of the opposition to talk with the regime was “a position that creates a dead end”.

The conflict in Syria has thus far been responsible for some 45,000 civilian deaths, and Moscow has twice vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSR), which represents the largest grouping of the Syrian opposition, suggested opening a dialogue with Russia on the issue on the condition that Moscow “apologise to the people of Syria” for its earlier positions on the Syrian crisis.

The NCSR suggested that the dialogue would discuss ending Al-Assad’s rule, but Lavrov described the notion as indicating the opposition’s “lack of political experience”.

“Lavrov has mocked the head of the NCSR for ‘lacking political experience’, which is true since he has never lived under a regime that allows political activism or even respects politics,” Hazem Nahhar, an opposition analyst, said.

“But Lavrov doesn’t see the whole picture. Even a child could have dealt with the Syrian issue in a more intelligent manner than the Russian president and his men have done. It is they who have not practiced politics over the past two years, but have only acted like thugs in every sense of the word.”

 “Russia has not proposed any genuine political initiative over the past two years, but has only repeated what the Syrian regime itself has suggested. It has even agreed to become a spokesman for the Syrian regime. It seems that ‘political experience’ in Lavrov’s opinion means lying.”

Meanwhile, the UN seems to have been trying to distance itself from its own envoy by announcing that Brahimi had not meant to state that Al-Assad would stay in power until the end of his tenure. It said that the transitional phase in Syria should begin as soon as possible and that this could not wait until 2014.

Brahimi’s statements drew much criticism from Syrians, some saying that they merely echoed the rhetoric of the regime. Critics said that the UN envoy had given al-Assad the chance to end his term as if he were a legitimate president of a democratic country, describing such offers as either “complete bankruptcy” or “complete complicity” with the regime.

Opposition fighters also rejected Brahimi’s proposal, perhaps partly because they have made striking gains on the ground against regime forces over recent weeks and now believe that they may be able to overthrow the regime by military means. One military commander said that the revolutionaries would “never accept anything less than the trial of Al-Assad and all the pillars of his regime.”

Yet, Brahimi’s conclusion was that regime change must occur gradually and any solution must guarantee that the regime remains in power during the transitional phase. He also underlined the need for national reconciliation, which could mean an amnesty for those accused of war crimes and other abuses.

Meanwhile, the positions of Europe and the US have not changed, and they insist that Al-Assad must go as a precondition for any political solution. They have also underlined the fact that it will be difficult for the opposition to accept the presence of regime figures in any transitional government.

Russia wants Brahimi to succeed, even if his proposals have scant possibility of doing so. For one thing, they have not been issued according to chapter VII of the UN Charter, but instead under chapter VI, meaning that they are not binding. Observers believe that the regime will not comply with the proposals and will simply undermine them. 

Moreover, Brahimi’s proposals are based on an at best partial consensus and they are unacceptable to broad sectors of the opposition and the revolutionaries on the ground, who will not accept a solution that does not led to real regime change. The proposals also keep Al-Assad and his entourage in power, despite the fact that some three million people have been harmed by the regime’s security crackdown.

Yet, Brahimi has not admitted failure, and he apparently intends to continue work on a Russian-US consensus on a Geneva 2 Conference in the belief that the armed opposition will not be able to resolve the conflict militarily and will have no other option but to negotiate with the regime.

Brahimi hopes for international support in pressuring the Syrian opposition to accept a settlement with the regime, which the opposition has described as unthinkable.

Brahimi may succeed in organising the Geneva 2 Conference, and the regime might accept to cooperate because of its losses on the ground and its growing lack of confidence in its Russian allies. However, any cooperation by the regime is likely to lead to only cosmetic changes, buying it further time to manoeuvre.

A UN resolution could be issued under chapter VI that includes deploying international peacekeepers to monitor a ceasefire and supporting the transitional plan. Both would take many months, the regime calculates, by which time the revolutionary pressures in Syria may have calmed down. 

Yet, the opposition has refused to fall into the Russian trap, and there are no signs that it will accept Al-Assad and his henchman remaining in power, even temporarily. Hundreds of people are still paying with their lives in the struggle against the regime, which possesses chemical weapons that some in the West fear may be used as the end of the conflict approaches.

 Should this happen, the Syrian people will pay a very high price indeed.

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