Russian President Vladimir Putin has imposed on the United States, Europe, and the Arab nations a fait accompli, which they have no choice but to accept. Yet at the same time, Putin might have just backed himself into a corner.
U.S. President Barack Obama is determined not to be dragged to Syria. He has no solutions to tackle the situation; if Putin believes he has a solution, then Obama’s stance is so be it with best wishes for success. If Putin pulls it off, Washington would be able to say it had contributed to the success. If he fails, Syria will be Putin’s quagmire and own Afghanistan.
In New York over this past week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov held four rounds of talks. If anything, this suggests that the two sides have common ground as well as differences. Indeed, the two powers are engaged in military and intelligence coordination, at the very least for “de-confliction” in Syria where their air forces are operating simultaneously. Nevertheless, Washington and Moscow’s essential difference is over the role of Bashar al-Assad in political arrangements, and this is where the main obstacle lies, the so-called Assad Knot. Washington wants to convince Russia of abandoning Assad, if not at the start of the transition then at the end. Moscow wants Washington to stop wasting time on this issue because Assad is Russia’s man in Syria and it would not sacrifice him.
The Assad problem is papered over
Washington is embarrassed because its Arab allies are not willing to approve understandings whereby the Assad problem is papered over. They want clarity and they want commitments and guarantees that Assad would not still be in power at the end of the political transition, should they agree to relax their demand that Assad must step down as a condition to start a political process.
Moscow wants to tell Washington that its position is key and that its Arab allies would ultimately cave in and agree to U.S.-Russian understandings, because they have no other option. Cracks have begun to appear in the Arab ranks, and some are saying that there is no choice but to accept what Russia has imposed on the United States and the U.S. administration. Others are categorically refusing to be part of a U.S.-Russian equation that practically entails partnership with Bashar al-Assad in crushing the armed Syrian opposition, and not just ISIS and similar groups. There are some who buy into the U.S. proposal of luring Putin into becoming implicated in Syria, and become caught in a war similar to the Afghanistan war that led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Union.
Either Russia wakes up to the dangers of clinging on to one man and sacrificing an entire country, or wake up one day trapped in a corner of their own makingRaghida Dergham
Indeed, the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan at the time led to the mujahidin war against “Communist atheism”, with U.S. and Arab support and incitement that helped create fundamentalist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Therefore, the Afghanization of Syria will not spare anyone, mainly Russia which is lodging itself in the Syrian corner today as a direct party to a civil war and as the leader of the war on fundamentalism and terrorism.
John Kerry has been on marathon shuttle meetings over the Syrian issue. A number of ministers felt that Kerry had brought to them an implicit agreement between him and Lavrov, and that he wanted to get it passed despite states U.S. positions against Assad, voiced by Obama himself.
Remember the chemical weapons agreement?
When Kerry was met with that resistance, he felt that he had to adapt a little so as not to appear as if imposing a U.S.-Russian agreement with the flavor of the previous bilateral agreement on chemical weapons. That agreement culminated with Obama’s U-turn on his infamous “red lines”.
Public statements by the United States and Britain escalated then de-escalated. As the British Foreign Secretary clarified, London is willing to alter the interpretation of the Geneva-1 communique and the Geneva-2 mechanism to accept a role for Assad in the transition. This is contrary to previous positions. At the same time, Britain stepped up its verbal tone, saying Assad has lost legitimacy and must step down, and that there could be no return to the status quo before the Syrian revolution by rehabilitating a man who helped kill 300,000 of his people and dispossess millions.
The senior pillars of the Syrian regime are extremely reassured by the Russian positions and their implications for U.S. and British positions. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said U.S. and European statements are like a “fan” and are not reliable, changing between night and day. He said they had no choice but the Russian option, if they were serious about fighting ISIS.
It is clear that a priority for the United States and Russia now is to reach an agreement over a communication mechanism to avoid any clashes in Syria, with Russian and international airstrikes taking place at the same time in Syria. This is what Kerry and Lavrov jointly declared following their third meeting.
Russia is adamant that its airstrikes in Syria follow a request by the Syrian government, which it considers the legitimate sovereign government in Syria. Russia cites the request made by the Iraqi government to the coalition forces, which it says is equivalent.
Politically, Kerry and Lavrov have agreed that they want a united, democratic, and secular Syria, but they are in disagreement over how to get there. They agreed on “almost specific steps,” in Lavrov’s words, to be undertaken with other countries and the United Nations, to create the suitable conditions to promote a political solution. The two men also agreed to be in “permanent” contact over Syria. According to Kerry, an agreement was reached to take a number of steps that could push forward a political solution and rapidly, given the refugee crisis in Syria that has taken its toll on Europe.
Moscow has decided to intervene directly in Syria in support of the regime in Damascus. It is clear the target of Russian airstrikes will not be limited to ISIS.
The change in the Russian strategy is not minor. Russia today speaks the language of “Russian national security” as being a cause for its military escalation in Syria. The Russians are proclaiming that they do not want or accept for Syria to become another Libya – as though the situation in Syria is any better than Libya.
The Russians are saying there is no alternative to partnership with the Syrian regime, because it is the only force on the ground that can defeat ISIS. They are saying anyone who has an alternative to Assad should present it, and are saying: Come with us, because you have no other option but us. We are the headline in Syria, and you are not prepared to engage to begin with.
Moscow is betting on the United States, Britain, and France caving in to the fait accompli imposed by Russian strategy in Syria, because Washington does not want to engage on this difficult issue and because Europe is keen to stop the flow of migrants to its borders.
Washington does not mind Russia leading in Syria against ISIS and similar groups. But it does not want to officially bless the attacks on the armed Syrian opposition or take part in rehabilitating Assad. Washington does not want to appear to its Arab friends or Turkey as though it is colluding with Moscow, and has become an ally to Moscow, Iran, Hezbollah, and the regime in Damascus in the Syrian war.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir explained in an interview I conducted two days ago the main points of the position on the proposals regarding Syria and Assad. Jubeir said there are no differences when it comes to the principle of preserving the civilian and military institutions in Syria to prevent total collapse.
He also said that there is a general agreement that Assad would have no role in Syria’s future, stressing that the solution does not depend on Russia, which opposes this general agreement. In other words, disagreements continue regarding the fate of Assad after the transitional phase, and not just during it.
Jubeir said that discussions are currently looking into whether the Syrian president would step down at the start of the transitional phase, or whether he would remain in Syria without any powers or privileges. Saudi Arabia, he said, is determined to know the endgame of the political process, saying that the Geneva principles would be meaningless if there is no agreement over Assad stepping down in Syria.
The Russian response is clear in rejecting calls for Assad to step down. Interpreting the Geneva communique as calling for Assad’s departure is wrong, according to Russia. Moscow will not abandon Bashar al-Assad, whether at the beginning or at the end of any political process. In short, Moscow rejects making prior commitments regarding Assad’s fate and rejects any preconditions in this regard. Moscow is saying that the political process and elections dictate Assad’s fate. But Moscow is saying this while fighting directly in Syria alongside Assad under the banner of defeating ISIS, and while recognizing only “healthy” Syrian opposition figures and groups that suit it as alternatives to the National Coalition and the armed opposition.
John Kerry has warned both Russia and Iran of the consequences of clinging to Assad and linking the fate of Syria to one man. He said that Moscow must understand the consequences of supporting rule by the Alawite minority in a sea of 65 million Sunnis between Baghdad and the Turkish borders, who reject Assad as their legitimate ruler.
Kerry said that Russia must be more concerned about going it alone against ISIS, because this would make Russia a target and together with Assad a magnet for jihadists.
The gist of the U.S. position on Moscow’s proposals is that the decision is in Russia’s hands: either Russia wakes up to the dangers of clinging on to one man and sacrificing an entire country, or wake up one day trapped in a corner of their own making.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 2, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.