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An International Understanding Over the Exit of Assad and His Relatives, With the Regime Remaining in Place

Beirut -- Last Friday, there was a meeting in Geneva over the fate of the situation in Syria, attended by the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council, in addition to those of Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey. Also present were the Secretary-Generals of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, alongside joint envoy Kofi Annan.

One participant summed the meeting up by saying that it saw a turning point between the phase of inaction and indecision, by "giving one last chance" to the regime. This high-ranking source added that "now is the phase of establishing a crossing bridge," describing the meeting as one that was both difficult and important. The source also stressed that "an understanding has been reached between the United States and Russia over resolving the Syrian crisis without confrontation, but rather through cooperation." "Both sides have agreed over the principle of not militarizing the conflict," he added.

But another participant at the Geneva meetings described the atmosphere there completely in the opposite way, saying that every party had obstinately clung to their respective opinions, and that Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was violent in his stances and in the way he addressed others, especially Qatar's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim and the Foreign Minister of Turkey. According to this source, the Geneva meeting did not result in anything new, but rather increasingly revealed Russia's resolve to legitimize its right to provide the Syrian regime with weapons, in accordance with contracts ratified signed their two governments, and its insistence at the same time on the illegitimacy of arming the opposition by the countries that support it.

The two contradictory opinions reflect Russia's attempt to seal a "Grand Bargain," which would include ensuring its position at the international level as a player on equal footing with the world's sole superpower, i.e. the U.S., and above regional players. They also reflect an art of negotiation that pays no heed to the image left behind by the Russians in the minds of the public opinion, inasmuch as it realizes that its excessive and bloody involvement with massacres and oppression will have a backlash. Yet they also reflect a combination of strength and weakness in the stances taken by Russia -- leaving a mark on this rhythm of half-measures. The bitter disputes that have emerged at the Geneva meetings were sometimes of a bilateral nature, and tended toward condescension on the part of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Indeed, sources have conveyed that these countries have agreed over a formula that would distinguish them and give them precedence. The Western countries even supported Russia and China when they dealt haughtily with Qatar and Turkey, addressing them with arrogance on the basis that these countries had no right to "interfere" in the affairs and procedures of the Security Council, demand the implementation of Chapter VII or reject amendments made by Russia and China. Yet the main idea behind inviting the heads of regional groups, such as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who holds the Presidency of the Council of the Arab League for the current cycle, was in order to work on finding a consensual discourse and to avoid clashes.

According to sources, the discussion has reached a delicate phase among the five countries, as well as between Russia and China on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other. In fact, the delegations of Russia and China nearly walked out, threatening that they were prepared to boycott the meeting if their amendments were not taken into account. Sources also said that the Russians in particular were very upset at Turkey and Qatar on the basis that they had "no right" to interfere in drafting a resolution that is the concern of the Security Council, and that they should not behave as if they were members of the Council. Yet the main disagreements were just as acute, especially when Russia introduced a new element to one of the six points of Kofi Annan's plan, which required the withdrawal of the government's military forces and tanks from Syrian cities. Indeed, the Russian minister put several stokes in the wheel, such as when he wondered who will guarantee the opposition's side of the equation, while it occupies entire cities, or who will coordinate the simultaneous withdrawal?

There was also a lengthy debate over the transitional government in Syria and over who would be appointed to represent the government at the dialogue, something much clearer than who would be representing the fragmented opposition at this dialogue. To be sure, it will be much easier to find a negotiator for the government than one for the opposition. Sources said that the discussions in Geneva did not explicitly address whether Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should stay or leave, but that everyone nevertheless had the clear impression that he would not be participating in the dialogue that would be initiated by the transitional government, but that he would rather appoint the appropriate person for the task. There was also a disagreement over the composition of the two sides of the dialogue, and over who would have to be approved by whom, and an understanding was reached over bilateral consensus by mutual consent. Moreover, a radical disagreement took place over issuing a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter that would place implementing Annan's plan at a binding level that would ensure those who fail to implement its clauses are held accountable.

The step reached in Geneva was a transitional compromise that relies on issuing an agreed-upon statement, to be read by British Foreign Secretary William Hague on behalf of the five permanent members, declaring renewed commitment to Annan's plan as well as the resolve of the Security Council to look into guarantees of its implementation. But if current efforts outside the Security Council were to fail, then the latter would return to considering Chapter VII. The conclusion reached by a high-ranking Arab participant was that "for the first time, we felt that a tangible understanding was reached by Russia and the United States, going beyond the steps seen up until the G20 summit, which brought together Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, and beyond U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton's visit to Moscow and Putin's visit to Israel."

The source said, "The agreement may not be clear in its every detail, but there is an understanding over the Syrian president and his relatives leaving Syria. Yet the state will remain."

"In other words, Alawite leaders would remain in control in a manner similar to the Egyptian model," he added. This is a reference to the role played by Egypt's Military Council in maintaining the state after the overthrow of the former president's family and the regime. The details are important, and the Devil lies in the detail. So far, there is still decisiveness and resolve in the channels of trade-offs and mutual suspicion. One seasoned politician who holds a high-ranking position in an Arab government asked, what is it Russia wants that it has not yet obtained? Such a question is appropriate, because, as long as clarity remains out of reach, it means that there is something Russia wants from a certain party or parties, something it has not yet obtained.

The Syrian opposition seems as one that does not understand the balance of international stances and the links between the international strategies and interests of major powers. It is fragmented and sometimes confused, and its political thinking is focused on specific issues, such as establishing no-fly zones and safe corridors, or promises of air support and protection by force. But the fact of the matter is that the United States does not want to take such measures, and it has agreed with Russia on the necessity of not militarizing the conflict. This does not mean that Washington wants the President or the regime to remain in place. Its approach relies more on persistently inciting defections within the ranks of the army, and on reaching an understanding with Russia over the latter's sponsorship of the process of political transition in Syria - within the framework of broader understandings.

What took place at the meetings of the opposition in Cairo indicates the lack of political awareness among some in the opposition. The very notion of boycotting meetings like the one hosted by the Arab League in Cairo is an indication of short-sightedness. Further, the domestic opposition needs to be much more aware of how to interpret the stances taken by major powers. Mistakes like burning Russian flags, as took place previously, must not be committed. Boycotting a meeting aimed at bringing together the opposition should not happen either. Russia has major interests, regardless of its ethical shortcomings towards the Syrian people and of the fact that it has weighed developments in Syria in the scale of Russian interests. The Russians fear for their interests. They also fear Islamist extremism, terrorism, Arab uprisings and the interference of the United Nations in internal affairs, which could lead it to interfere in Chechnya. The Russians have rebelled against the insult of excluding them from drafting a new regional order, and have objected to unilateral Western decisions. Yet this does not mean that Russia is in a position to be envied for. It is in a position that is simply unsustainable, and this is why it is preparing for major trade-offs.

The agreement in Geneva over forming a transitional government in Syria that would have no blood on its hands is an important step for Russia, and one that can be developed further. The bigger problem may not be restricted to the relationship between Russia and the United States, and to what Moscow would obtain from Washington. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the problem or the obstacle, instead, lies in Russia's relationship with Turkey and with the GCC countries. And at the core of such a dispute or disagreement lie Syria and Iran, strategically as well as in terms of oil, and in terms of bilateral commercial and political contracts. Consider for instance that the European oil embargo on Iran is accompanied by increased oil production on the part of Saudi Arabia. Raising production in order to maintain low prices angers Moscow, not just in terms of the harms it causes Iran, but also in terms of the economic harm it causes Russia itself. There is also the fact that there are no commercial exchanges or investments between Russia and the countries of the GCC.

Meanwhile, there is an alliance between the GCC and the West (and also Egypt at the moment). It is not in Russia's interest to be left out of this alliance. Moscow is thus objecting to such a state of affairs at the Security Council and in Syria through the policy of "obstruction", which had been customary during the Soviet era. One seasoned source described the difference between China and Russia by saying that China's opposition is silent while Russia's opposition is articulated. The stances taken by the GCC countries and by Russia are radically divergent when it comes to both Syria and Iran, yet there is now a need to begin repairing their relationship, with Moscow beginning by agreeing on a new Syrian government "from outside of the club", to quote one observer. Indeed, Moscow has initiated procedures indicative of what is to come to Syria, among them hosting the parties to the Syrian opposition to hold a dialogue.

Iraq has picked up on these emerging trends, as seemed clear from the speech given by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari at the meeting of the Syrian opposition in Cairo, in which he spoke the language of "confronting oppressive totalitarian regimes", and clarified the "misunderstanding", stating that Iraq "has not been neutral" and that "we were never with the regime against the opposition and the Syrian revolution". Those are stances that reflect a striking analysis by Iraq, in the light of which it has decided that it must take into account the future shape of its neighborhood.

One Iraqi official who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "We have, through our international contacts and by observing the situation on the field, concluded that the situation is developing in a manner contrary to the regime's interest. Entire provinces are no longer under the regime's authority, and the government has become a government of thugs (shabbiha) and soldiers. He added, "Russia is holding a dialogue with the opposition, and even Iran has been opening channels of dialogue with it. All of this has led us to take clearer and stronger stances".

When will the matter be settled then? No one has a definitive answer, but the majority are saying that a political solution will come before the end of the year. That is if this is not undermined by developments that would impose militarization.


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