Russia finds fresh confidence amid Syrian stalemate

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. (SANA / AP)
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. (SANA / AP)

Last week, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov visited Beirut. Those meeting with him were struck by his refusal to blame Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad, for the Syrian crisis. Instead, Mr Bogdanov, who had once criticised the Syrian president for standing for re-election, disparaged the United States and its role in the country.

This attitude goes part of the way towards explaining Russia’s recent efforts to bring the Syrian regime and the opposition to the negotiating table. Moscow does not want to undermine Mr Al Assad before any such talks and the initiative is designed to prevent the US from playing a forceful role in Syria.

This may sound ironic because the Obama administration has avoided Syria like the plague and the campaign against ISIL risks failing because the Americans refuse to address the issue of Mr Al Assad’s future.

Nor does America have many confident friends in the region. The Gulf states have gone along with President Barack Obama in his anti-ISIL campaign. But they do not trust him, given his desire to secure a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme and his disengagement from the Middle East.

Clearly, Russia’s anxieties are triggered by its sense of vulnerability rather than anything America is doing. In Syria, Russian power will mainly be defined by its purported allies.

The Russian peace plan is said to have been prepared in coordination with Egypt and the United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. It reportedly proposes a conference in Moscow, to be attended by the Syrian regime and a swathe of opposition groups.

The plan would aim to set up a transitional Syrian government with wide powers, while Mr Al Assad would retain control over the army and security services. The transitional government would establish a constituent assembly to prepare a new constitution before parliamentary elections and a presidential election, two years later. Mr Al Assad could stand for office again if he so chooses.

One can immediately see likely problems. The opposition, already marginalised by the jihadists, will find it difficult to approve of a plan that lets Mr Al Assad retain command over the security services and opens the door to his re-election.

But there are some subtle touches there too, which is why Egypt is paying attention. Moscow is preoccupied with maintaining the Syrian army as an effective force to which rebels can rally once normalisation begins. The plan is primarily seen as a way of containing the jihadist threat in Syria, and echoes what Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said months ago: that the Al Assad regime and the opposition have a shared interest in combating terrorism. Understandably, Egypt welcomes anything that would weaken ISIL, which is not only present in the Sinai but in Libya.

The deadly stalemate in Syria, coupled with international eagerness to see the carnage brought to an end, gives the Russians new confidence that they can impose a settlement. But if the plan is to work, Moscow must persuade Mr Al Assad and Iran.

On the surface, there seems little in the proposal to disturb the Syrian leader, but there are some question marks. Even if Mr Al Assad were to control the army and security services, these have been so depleted in recent years that his overall control of political developments could be reduced.

At the same time, a transitional government and a constituent assembly may begin a process that effectively takes power away from Mr Al Assad. The president’s acceptance of a transitional government may be viewed by his followers as a form of surrender and support for him could wither.

Therefore, it’s not certain that Mr Al Assad will embrace the plan. If so, the Russians would need to persuade Iran of its virtues because Tehran has more influence in Syria than Moscow.

The Iranians might agree with the general aims but like Mr Al Assad, they will first want to know to what a transitional government may lead. Iran, no less that Russia, seeks to preserve Syrian security institutions over which it has sway. But it also realises that accepting Mr Al Assad’s imminent exit may cause the Iranian support edifice in Syria to disintegrate.

Unlike Russia, Iran has played on sectarian divisions to advance its agenda in the Middle East. It sanctioned Shia repression of the Sunni community in Iraq; it has facilitated the de facto break-up of Syria along sectarian lines, and it has supported Shia armed groups from Lebanon to Yemen. Its favoured instrument of manipulation is sectarian militias, which it has established, trained and armed in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

It is unclear how the Iranian strategy of fragmentation can be reconciled with a Russian plan designed to end it. Mr Al Assad is almost entirely dependent on Tehran today. How eager would the Iranians be to see him accept a road map that allows him to reassert his independence?

Mr Al Assad knows he can play Iran and Russia off against each other if he feels any threat to his rule. That is what should concern Russia. Instead of worrying about the US in Syria, Moscow should tally its own influence over its friends.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut

Twitter: @BeirutCalling

Published: December 10, 2014 04:00 AM

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