M K BHADRAKUMAR

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 six-point proposal demands:

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 centres, 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 prisoners.

International media coverage of the Syrian situation.

A legal guarantee for peaceful political activities.

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.

The 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 interests.

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.”

Clearly, Russian 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.

Three, 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.

Finally, the 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.

The 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.

Thus, 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.

Thus, 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. It 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. .       –Asia Times