Moscow and its Syrian and Russian Calculations |
Al Hayat - 31 January, 2012
Author: George Semaan
Shutting off the horizon in the face of the Arab initiative and obstructing the efforts inside the Security Council, do not necessarily mean that dialogue was severed and that Syria is sliding even further toward the quagmire of civil war. Stringent Moscow is still supporting dialogue between the Syrians but without prior conditions, which is why it rejected what was featured in the League’s last initiative in terms of calls upon President Bashar al-Assad to transfer his prerogatives to his deputy. This does not mean it is insisting on the stay of President Al-Assad forever, as it is aware – like the other states – that he will eventually leave. What interests it is the next stage, i.e. the alternative, following the safe exit and the change.
This position reveals that Russia is not completely at ease regarding the opposition or the components of the National Council, a feeling which is shared by Syrian and even Arab and international factions. This lack of reassurance is due to the fact that it had no say or role to play in the formation of this council, which was mainly created by Turkey. Moreover, there are opposition factions outside the council still opposing its structure, while some are blaming Ankara for the fact that its wish to ensure the biggest share for the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming authority is among the reasons behind the obstruction of the steps to unify the ranks of the various opposition movements. And while Moscow is not reassured about the council, it is natural for it to also have reservations over the temporary transfer of power to the vice president, because it is well aware of the fact that the latter does not enjoy bases or influence, neither in the institutions nor in the apparatuses managing the country. Therefore, he will be unable to run the transitional stage and reach the desired change.
Russia’s obstinacy will not subside, even at a time when some Western sides are showing a tendency to take it into account while drawing up the roadmap of the settlement, and even after some Arabs threatened to harass it in the future at the level of its relations with the outside world and its gas and oil trade. What Russia wants is to be comforted about the transitional phase and its symbols, in a way allowing it to maintain its interests and influence in the country. It might thus prefer the establishment of a transitional council before calling on the president to step down, one which includes among others military symbols from the current regime, in addition to technocrats from the opposition and other factions of Syrian society. The council would decide later on the president’s stay and the duration of that stay. What the Russian command firstly wants is to uphold the minimum level of the existing institutions, especially the army. It also wants to see the participation of all the social components in the management of the country’s affairs, in order to maintain civil peace and the country’s unity. Thirdly, it wants to make sure that such a structure will guarantee its interests and only remaining position in the region.
Russia is aware of the fact that no settlement can be ratified if it does not take into consideration the fate of the group surrounding the president and currently managing the conflict. Even Al-Assad himself cannot accept a settlement that does not offer the latter the required guarantees, but also that does not provide guarantees to the sect which has mimicked the regime to the point where it perceives its collapse as being its own and that of its political future, even a threat to its very existence. Hence Moscow’s insistence on refusing any settlement that firstly calls for Al-Assad’s departure. True, the last initiative of the Arab League is similar to the Gulf initiative which is supposed to be leading the situation in Yemen toward calm and stability. But what is also true is that what was drawn up for Sana’a was not the same in regard to Damascus. Indeed, the League’s initiative did not stipulate the safe exit of the president and his aides and did not call for granting them immunity, similar to the one granted to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his party leaders, his government members and family.
This is at the level of Russia’s Syrian calculations. Russia’s domestic calculations on the other hand are a totally different issue, adding other kinds of complications to the crisis. First of all, Moscow recognizes the fact that the regime in Damascus will collapse sooner or later, whether via peaceful settlements or at the end of whichever civil war, no matter how long it were to last. And while the West was reluctant for several months when the events erupted under claims of awaiting the facets of the expected alternative, Moscow is also entitled to show patience while awaiting the emergence of an alternative whose ability to guarantee its interests and position in the region it can trust. The military institution is keener than the diplomatic one on seeing the stay of the regime, as it is thus holding on to its base in Tartous and what it grants it in terms of presence in the warm waters, but also the possible role it could play in any settlement affecting whatever is left of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But more importantly, Russia is engaged in a battle for survival, considering that if it loses Syria, it will have to exit the entire region and retreat behind its border. This is something it has never experienced throughout its history, neither during the days of the Tsars nor in the days of the Soviets. It was always present in many spaces, from the Dark Continent and its north to the Middle East, and cannot succumb to the attempts to isolate it on its domestic arena after NATO besieged it in Central and Eastern Europe, and is trying to maneuver around it – along with China – in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Pacific Ocean.
With the imminence of the March elections and his certain return to Kremlin, Vladimir Putin cannot forget how all hell broke loose following the Duma elections. The spring was heralded to him as well, which is why he is expecting a campaign opposing him and his party in two months. Consequently, he wants additional guarantees for Russia to maintain its exceptional position in any alternative regime in Damascus and for the Western circles and outlets to stop addressing the Russian spring! These wishes were clearly expressed a few days ago when he threatened that he will not allow unilateral steps on the international arena if they do not take into account his country’s opinion and interests, considering this to be a matter of personal dignity, i.e. Russia’s dignity.
But far away from these Russian and non-Russian wishes, everyone is aware of the fact that President Al-Assad has not yet shown any leniency at the level of his possible exit. “Shame on you,” he said to those calling for his departure. And in that same spirit, the opposition – whether represented by the National Council or by other bodies – is not showing any leniency at the level of any settlement that would maintain Al-Assad and some of the symbols of his regime, even if for a limited period of time, and until the president’s term ends in two years or less. This is due to the fact that no political entity speaking in the opposition’s name can adopt a step in that direction, considering that the crowds which have been struggling for eleven months would immediately remove its legitimacy. Hence the predicament seen in the regime’s insistence on staying in power regardless of the consequences, and the people’s insistence on its departure, along with its symbols, no matter how long it takes and regardless of the sacrifices.
This is why we are currently seeing a fierce military campaign to break the will of the people who are advancing on the ground, in parallel to the regime’s military institution’s depletion and exhaustion from the move from one front to another, and one city to another. In the meantime, the economic and financial crisis is escalating and threatening with an imminent collapse, no matter how much the regime’s leaders were to show arrogance the Iranian-style. The domestic revolution has started to raise the slogan of “an eye for an eye” which was translated in the “Friday of the right to self-defense.” In other words, the demonstrators immediately responded to the regime’s announcement via its Foreign Minister Walid Muallem of the fact that “the security solution is a popular demand,” thus meeting him halfway and announcing the militarization of the action, if there is no other way!
Through its insistence on rejecting the calls for the president’s departure, Moscow maybe wants to reassure him before forcing him to accept a settlement, if those drawing it up are successful. It is also supporting him to reassure Iran which is nowadays taking pleasure in standing behind the curtain while watching the Russians wage a battle that is originally its own, and is part of the wide confrontation to contain it and limit its influence. Moscow wants to prevent the country’s slide toward a civil war which might topple among other things its interests and role, and in which victory will not eventually go to the president’s team. As for Tehran’s insistence on the regime, it is another major complication and a card in its regional and international conflict.
Russia knows, just like America knows, that during the days of Hafez al-Assad, Syria was the Soviet Union’s ally but never hesitated to provide the services requested by Washington, which sometimes provoked Moscow’s disgruntlement. Syria also enjoyed solid relations with Iran, but never allowed its Arab “brothers” – especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – to sense it was sacrificing them to serve these relations. It dealt with the Islamic Republic as a source of support in the face of the pressures, but also as a card it used in dealing with some of the international community’s requirements and needs. It made all the actors in the region feel that it was indispensible at the level of most of the files in the region. But its transformation started with the beginning of the term of Al-Assad Jr. as it became Iran’s close ally and stopped enjoying what the former regime enjoyed in terms of freedom of action. This made many Arab and international sides consider that the regime’s function was over, since it was no longer a mediator or a channel to talk to Hezbollah or Hamas and no longer a tool to annoy Baghdad, as it used to be the case during the days of Saddam. The function carried out by the regime throughout years thus expired, after it almost became a card in Iran’s hand.
It is a battle to determine Syria’s future role, and all those involved in the obstructed dialogue know that its slide toward civil war is not the solution or the path to be adopted. War would require the involvement of many sides to supply money, weapons and men, just like what happened in Lebanon and Iraq, and the regional climate which is governed by sectarian Sunni-Shiite tensions will not spare any effort to support this or that side. But this prompts the following question: Is the goal to render Syria the alternative arena for the greater and deferred confrontation between Iran and the rejectionists on one hand, and the United States and its partners on the other? What about those who are spread throughout the squares? Have they surrendered to the impossibility of reaching a settlement that does not cause the prohibited and relinquished the reigns to the League, the West or Russia? Until when will those involved in the conflict on the domestic arena and the ones involved in the conflict on the external arena – at the head of which is Russia – be able to stand firm, in case the killing machine were to proceed with its horrors as it is doing nowadays?