The United Nations Security Council
statement on Syria on Wednesday marks a turning
point. The unanimity of opinion over the year-long
crisis in Syria is appearing for the first time;
why and how this happened needs to be understood.
Russia finds itself in the driving seat in
crafting the future of a key Middle East nation.
This is unprecedented and it impacts the
alchemy of ties between the
presidency of Vladimir Putin and the West. Indeed,
the Arab Spring won't be the same again.
But first, Wednesday's statement itself.
It "declassified" the initial six-point proposal
submitted to the Syrian authorities by the joint
special envoy for the United Nations and the
League of Arab States, Kofi Annan. The endorsement
by the permanent five of the UN Security Council -
the United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom
and China - implies that the Syrian government is
expected to work with Annan.
The Syrian government designate an "empowered
interlocutor" for Annan to work with.
The cessation of all violence, including an
immediate end to all troop movements and security
operations and a pullback from population centers,
with a UN supervision mechanism to oversee a
"sustained cessation of armed violence in all its
forms by all parties".
The creation of a mechanism for coordinating
the rendering of humanitarian relief assistance.
The expedition of the release of political
International media coverage of the Syrian
A legal guarantee for peaceful political
In sum, Syria should undertake
its political reforms openly and transparently in
peaceful conditions with monitoring by the
Security Council, which "will consider further
steps as appropriate". The statement begins with
an affirmation of the Security Council's "strong
commitment" to Syria's sovereignty, independence,
unity and territorial integrity.
Syrian situation is the stuff of much polemics
today. Unsurprisingly, it is tempting to
misinterpret that Russia and China "blinked" after
earlier balking at backing resolutions against
Damascus. The point is, Moscow has been
calibrating its diplomatic position on Syria since
the Russian presidential election in early March
that will result in Vladimir Putin resuming the
presidency on May 7.
Behind the cloud
cover of rhetoric, Moscow has been probing how to
steer Syria in a direction, broadly speaking, of a
Yemen-like transition, while safeguarding its
By March 2, Putin already began
tempering Russia's support for Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad. In an interview with editors of
six leading Western newspapers, Putin said:
We don't have a special relationship
with Syria. We only have interests in seeing the
conflict being resolved. It is up to the Syrians
to decide who should run their country.
In order to solve this problem, you
cannot stand on one side of an armed conflict or
on the side of one of the warring parties, sorry
for the tautology. We need to look at the
interests of both, get them to sit down, get
them to ceasefire.
Suffice to say, on
the eve of the UN Security Council statement,
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was willing to be
drawn into a media discussion over Assad's
political future. He said without diplomatic
niceties, "Nobody invited him to Moscow. It's up
to Assad to decide. He won't make the decision
because someone from Russia asked him to."
But then, Lavrov also pondered why Western
and Arab politicians who pressed for Assad's
resignation shouldn't first "answer the question
of how it all would look and who would streamline
the [power transition] process. Taking into
account the great discord among the Syrian
opposition forces, there is no clear answer to
that question yet."
diplomacy is taking advantage of a "co-relation of
forces". One, Moscow forged a close coordination
with Beijing so that it didn't face diplomatic
isolation. Two, as time passed, it became clear
that the United States was not seeking Western
military intervention in Syria.
fissures began appearing among and betwixt the
Western powers and their Arab allies. Four, the
Arab League once again badly exposed itself as a
regional organization, thanks to the obduracy of
Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
deadlock in the Security Council put the onus on
the West to find a way to work with Russia rather
than around Russia. There were anxious moments
too, such as when Russia defiantly supplied Assad
with weapons, dispatched warships to Syrian port
of Tartus or kept up a propaganda war invoking
fears of an imminent Libya-like war over Syria.
Meanwhile, ground realities vindicated
Russia's policy assumptions. One, the Syrian
regime showed its staying power. Two, the Syrian
opposition failed to unite or project any cohesive
political agenda. Three, the ascendancy of
extremists in the ranks of the opposition
disheartened the West, frightened Syria's "silent
majority" and isolated the Saudis and Qataris who
covertly rendered assistance to the radicals.
Four, Syria began edging toward a
full-fledged civil war and the prospect worried
the international community, especially Turkey.
All in all, there are no takers today for the
Saudi drive to reset Middle Eastern politics in
terms of a Sunni-Shi'ite schism.
Saudis snubbed Moscow's overtures thrice in recent
weeks - King Abdullah slammed President Dmitry
Medvedev; Riyadh ignored Moscow's request for
consultations; and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud
al-Faisal and Lavrov sat across the Arab League
table at Cairo and tutored each other on the
lessons of history.
Long rope to
hang But Moscow was unflapped, knowing
that the Saudi agenda was not about democracy or
reform but stemmed from a motiveless malignity to
overthrow Assad at any cost. Besides, through all
this, the Saudis ceased to matter, as the US began
nudging Russia to take a lead role to bring about
a peaceful transition in Syria. In essence, a kind
of role reversal of what happened over Yemen.
What is the raison d'etre of this paradigm
shift? It has been brilliantly explained in a
report by Julien Barnes-Daicey, an experienced
"Syria hand" at the European Council on Foreign
Relations, titled "Syria: Towards a Political
Solution". The report says:
With ... Bashar al-Assad looking
unlikely to be pushed from power soon, it is
becoming more urgent than ever to find a
political solution ... But ... a political
resolution is, at minimum, dependent on Russian
acquiescence. Without pressure from Moscow, the
regime will neither relent ... nor enter into a
political process. Thus engaging with Russia may
be the only way of halting the bloodshed.
Kofi Annan should therefore begin a
political process that gives Russia a lead role
and includes direct negotiations with the
regime, which are not preconditioned on Assad's
immediate demise ... Europe, for its part, must
solidly back Annan's efforts.
Annan is heading for Moscow "in the next few
days". And Moscow too is moving toward a new
position and putting its weight behind Annan. In a
pre-recorded interview broadcast over Kommersant
radio on Tuesday, Lavrov was openly critical of
the Syrian regime.
All this doesn't mean
that Moscow is "dumping" Assad or that the Syrian
crisis is moving toward a solution. To be the
devil's advocate, Washington is probably giving
Moscow a long rope to hang itself. Time will tell.
The fact remains that Moscow is not the
only patron saint hovering above the Damascus
skyline. Tehran cannot easily abandon the Syrian
regime. Baghdad also plays a complicated role and
it is about to assume the chairmanship of the Arab
League. Then, there are the ubiquitous "non-state
actors" of the Middle East tapestry.
things will have to move at some point in the
direction of forming a contact group of
stakeholders. While Russia has specific interests
in Syria (which may fall within the ambit of its
evolving relationship with the West) and is
doubtless highly motivated, when it comes to the
brass tacks of a political transition in Damascus,
much will depend on regional players.
is difficult to underestimate the tenacity of
regional players such as Turkey or Iran to
safeguard their interests. Interestingly, Turkish
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting
Tehran on March 27 ahead of the meeting of the
"Friends of Syria" in Istanbul on April 1.
A core issue remains, namely, the absence
of a sustained diplomatic engagement of Iran so as
to bridge the huge gulf of distrust. It means
clearing the air that the West's agenda is
actually to force regime change in Iran. The West
must manifestly show the willingness to engage
Iran comprehensively on the range of regional
security issues that affect its core interests.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a
career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His
assignments included the Soviet Union, South
Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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