The Russian endgame? |
Arab News - 29 June, 2012
Kofi Annan is nothing if not indefatigable. Just 24 hours after Bashar Assad admitted on television that his country was now "at war," the UN's special mediator on Syria announced a meeting of "The Action Group For Syria" tomorrow in Geneva, at which he will be advancing a new plan for a national unity government to end the violence.
The proposal is that this unity government would be made up of present government members as well as members of the opposition. However, in the words of a diplomat close to the process: “It would need to exclude those whose continued participation or presence would jeopardize the transition’s credibility or harm prospects for reconciliation and stability.”
The key element to Annan’s new plan is that the Russians appear ready to come on board. However, the signals are all wrong. Moscow’s backing for the proposal is likely to include a continued insistence that Assad be part of the transitional government, which means in effect that the Syrian opposition will refuse to participate. Therefore, this latest initiative is almost certainly already dead in the water.
Too much blood has flowed. Too many lives have been wasted and too many atrocities have been perpetrated, for Assad, the chief architect of the brutal repression of his own people, to have anything to do with the future governance of Syria. Not only that, but for the Syrian dictator to have admitted that his country is now in a state of war, indicates strongly that the Free Syrian Army is making serious headway against the regime’s military and its murderous shabiha militiamen.
Probably no member of the regime would now be acceptable to the opposition as partners in a unity government. Indeed, thanks to Assad’s bloody crackdown, unity is slipping ever further away. When the regime falls, Syria seems destined to endure the same violent inter-communal tensions as Iraq after the US-led invasion and the same edgy gun law as Libya, since Qaddafi’s overthrow.
There may however, be two good reasons for the Kremlin’s apparent acceptance of this latest Annan initiative. The most obvious is that, even though it will continue to defend Assad, it recognizes that it cannot afford to leave the negotiating table. As long as it, along with China, continues to pretend to be looking for a peaceful solution, it can continue to shield Assad, while he attempts to bludgeon his people into submission.
But then there is the far less obvious but, from the Kremlin’s point of view, attractive option. Every day makes it clearer and clearer to the Putin administration that Assad is losing his struggle to cling on to power. It could be calculating that at some point it can intervene decisively to remove the dictator, with enthusiastic international backing. But it has in mind a price for that cooperation and that price could be its naval base at Tartus. If Moscow “persuades” Assad and his henchmen to go into exile, in Russia or perhaps better from the Kremlin’s point of view, in China, then a UN-brokered settlement could include a re-affirmation of the treaty allowing Russia continued use of the Tartus naval base. By 1992, this had fallen into considerable disrepair, but this year the Russian navy is completing a major upgrade of the entire facility, including dredging the harbor to accommodate the largest warships. It is now the only naval base the Kremlin has outside of Russia. From it, its warships went last year for controversial naval maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy and from Tartus, it sends vessels to be part of the international anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean.
The calculation may be that a new Syrian government, wrestling with post-revolution recovery, will accept a new treaty and, albeit through gritted teeth, tolerate continued presence of the Russian military on Syrian soil. Russia might even hope, as it is trying with Libya, that its armaments factories will be able to fully re-equip the new Syrian armed forces.
Russia’s international reputation has been dragged through the mud thanks to its stubborn support for Assad. However, it may be hoping that by a dramatic reversal of this policy, it will be hailed as a peacemaker and get to keep its Mediterranean naval base at the same time.