The Americans and Russians only agree not to disagree. Despite their different visions and aims, they are determined not to disagree over Syria or the nuclear-powered Iran.
When it comes to Russia's aspiration to obstruct the deployment of missile shields in Europe, the dispute is probable and is in fact happening. When it comes to Syria, Moscow was allowed to sell all destructive and fatal weapons hinting that international law does not prohibit supplying any criminal regime which kills its people. The task of the arms dealer is to fuel and intensify battles, not end them.
Moscow's interests in Syria and the possibility of expanding towards Lebanon and even towards Egypt through recently strengthened Egyptian-Iranian ties have already been recognized. On the other hand, Russia did not have any responsible stance imposed by its status as a superpower. As for the U.S., it has never spent so much time only observing a crisis that concerns it so much. It is dealing with Syria's crisis with zero options and it waited for Israel to sound the alarm to the Kremlin warning of "game changing" weapons from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
Following the Israeli attacks on Syria, John Kerry landed in Moscow on May 5 in search for a new "understanding" of what happened because the term "agreement" seemed unspecific. The agreement may be reached during the Obama-Putin summit which will be held a month from now. The British premier, meanwhile, assumed the role of organizing an expanded summit dedicated to an American-Russian agreement. It's clear that there are efforts to crystallize an international will that must be backed by a Security Council resolution under the sixth charter.
What could have been done?
This can be the basis of addressing the Syrian regime and opposition that the means to end the dispute begins with holding negotiations on establishing "a transitional cabinet with complete jurisdictions." This step should have been taken after the Geneva Accord's statement was issued in June 2012. It was possible to take this step back then before the number of victims doubled or tripled and before the huge destruction caused by the regime in various prominent cities and towns. But now, this international will must be extremely strict and determined, otherwise, it will not succeed.
Russia insisted on the Geneva statement but it did not seem capable of forcing Bashar al-Assad of transferring his jurisdictions to a transitional cabinet. It justified its incapability of doing so by saying that the opposition's and Friends of Syria's act of setting the condition that Assad steps down will prevent convincing Assad of giving up his powers. It said there was a need for Assad to at least sign the transfer of powers as it is an important step to maintain the state, army and institutions. Finally, Russia debated that the party it represents, that is the regime, has a delegation headed by the premier ready to negotiate whilst the opposition remains divided and incoherent and its representation of the revolution in general on the military and popular level is suspicious. But Moscow's stance originally suffered from a constant defect. It looks at the people's revolution as a "rebellion" and at the regime's behavior as "normal."
It is difficult to believe that Russia resolved and got rid of this defect. This defect falls within the core of its policies. It is not temporary, and it was not imposed by the circumstances of the crisis in Syria. Therefore, it is not possible to depend on any "agreement" with the Americans as long as the Russians are not loyal to the idea that Assad and his aides must be punished for all the crimes they committed against Syria and its people.
Amidst the absence of clarity, leaks and guesses flourished. Therefore we can understand that the two superpower countries' suggestions intersected at the priority of "a transitional cabinet with complete jurisdictions" without stopping at any prior conditions. Meaning, "let's forget Assad's stepping down" and go straight to this "cabinet." But how will you attain jurisdictions that Assad doesn't want to transfer? If there is a clear and strict Security Council resolution, the regime will for the first time find itself in a disagreement with its Russian ally. But the Iranian ally remains, and it will help it implement all acts of stalling and delaying. Therefore, any international decision must specify a deadline, and it must be open to other acts implemented under the seventh charter which allows intervention as per international legitimacy. But the Russian stance - that is if it has really changed - has not reached the phase of thinking of the situation as such. Instead of seeing Russia using its influence to convince Assad of what is coming his way, it will continue to urge it to fulfill achievements on the field, and it will participate with it in counting on the obstructed factors, including the opposition's stubbornness and lack of performance.
The Americans, the British and the rest of the "Friends of Syria" depend on the aspect that the case has become full of "red lines" that the regime violated. "Red lines" particularly linked to the usage of chemical arms and missiles, Iran's and Hezbollah's interference, the rise of Al-Nusra Front and the increase of the threat of terrorist groups.
The Israeli interference increased the risks. And the beginnings of the "sectarian purging" in the coastal area brought back Bosnia and Herzegovina to our minds. When it comes to a case like this one, it is no longer possible for Moscow to play the game the same way it has played it for two years. This is why it is currently showing that it is willing to cooperate. Perhaps Washington helped it by giving up the prior condition of "Assad stepping down" and replacing it with the prior condition that Assad will not be part of the solution. "Friends of Syria" thus bet on a new expanded formula for the opposition's coalition and on a direct and more trusted cooperation with activists on the ground.
Although the issue of Iran's and Hezbollah's interference in Syria is being importantly dealt with when holding talks, what attracts attention is that speeches on this issue are almost limited to the Syrian opposition and its supporters in Lebanon. Iran's traditional rivals have not focused on this issue as well.
There are many interpretations for this Western and even Arab silence. First of all, the interference has become a trap for Iran in a battle, which the latter is aware before anyone else, is no longer strategically successful. Secondly, Hezbollah's military operations weaken the expansion of Al-Nusra Front. Thirdly, there is a need to attract Iran to accept the suggested scenario to achieve a solution and therefore some flexibility must be adopted towards it in order to encourage it to cooperate. Therefore, it does not appear that Iran's participation remains to be a problem like it was during the "contact group" meeting that reached the "Geneva statement" especially if Iran is willing to play the game and participate with all other parties to facilitate negotiations amongst the parties at dispute.
Although intensified talks imply that a breakthrough may be achieved regarding the crisis, many mysteries remain. Russia still defends one of the regime's most important conditions that the army and security forces not be addressed. This means ruling out the killing machine from negotiations. But a "transitional cabinet with complete jurisdictions" means that before anything, it holds control of the situation through two joint apparatuses, military and security ones, in addition to a joint judicial commission. If this doesn't happen, then there is no use of a cabinet like this one.
But "complete" jurisdictions are currently in Assad's hands and they must be forcefully taken away from him. He did not launch his war to willingly give them up but to use them to bargain. He will therefore not cooperate with any solution if negotiations are not held with him.
The relative improvement of his situation on the ground and his feeling that the current international efforts aim to besiege him are pushing him towards activating his traditional role as per the pattern of the Reyhanli explosions in Turkey, or his willingness to launch operations inside Israel through Palestinian factions that he still controls or his endeavor to expand the fighting to areas beyond his borders.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on May 17, 2013.
Abdul Wahab Badrakhan is a Lebanese journalist, who writes weekly in London's al-Hayat newspaper among other Arab publications. Badrakhan was a journalist in 'Annahar' (Beirut) until 1979, in 'Annahar Arabic & international' magazine (Paris) up to 1989, in 'al-Hayat' (London) as managing editor then deputy editor in chief until 2006. At present, Badrakhan is working on two books. The first book is on the roots of the experiences that have motivated young Arab men to go to Afghanistan. The second is devoted to Arab policies to counterterrorism, starting with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and covering the ensuing wars.