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Raghida Dergham Headshot

Russia Wants to Be the 'Sponsor' of the Alternative Regime in Syria

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New York -- The major developments in both Egypt and Syria last week have proven wrong all those who assume that monopolizing power today is still possible, whether in the form of a regime that has for decades practiced the monopoly of power, or in the form of political parties which are new to government and which have become intoxicated with power. The number of votes obtained by the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential elections has diminished -- compared to the parliamentary elections -- and this should awaken the leaders of this party and of other Islamist political parties to the fact that a large segment of the Egyptian people does not want to once again fall victim and hostage to the monopoly of power. Indeed, people have grown weary of broken promises, and the youth of Egypt do not want to topple a tyrannical regime in order to replace it with another religiously inclined tyrannical regime that has made use of political assassinations as one of the means to attain power, by its own admittance.

Egypt may be in danger of slipping into chaos over the next few days as a result of former President Hosni Mubarak's trial coinciding with a verdict being issued that could lead to dissolving the parliament, as well as with a decision being issued that may result in the exclusion of Ahmed Shafik, one of the candidates to the second round of elections -- which would undermine the nature of the electoral process and set up the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood as President of the Republic. Anything is possible in Egypt's ordeal of change.

Regarding Syria's ordeal of change, the element of the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to find its way to the discussions taking place among the major powers, which are thinking of solutions to the current situation in Syria -- first, because of its importance at the domestic level in Syria; and second, as a result of the repercussions of the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt and in other countries, which the United States has welcomed, and perhaps encouraged, at least from the point of view of Russia. The major events unfolding in both Syria and Egypt deserve an in-depth analysis of what they entail in terms of a new aspect of the process of change currently taking place.

To begin with, let us examine Syria and Russia.

Russian messages on the issue of Syria intentionally suggest two contradictory conclusions, namely: that Moscow will not abandon the regime in Damascus and will not accept for it to be replaced; and that Moscow has entered as party to negotiations to apply the model of the "Yemeni solution" to Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, i.e. to secure his departure from power with guarantees that he and his family would not be subjected to prosecution. Such contradiction seems to represent a well thought-out policy by Moscow, which does not trust the promises of the United States or the stances taken by the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO). It seeks to hold the solutions in Syria and seeks for trade-offs over different issues to be part of the "Grand Bargain" which would ensure for Vladimir Putin's Russia the status of a major power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent envoys to several parties in order to inform of his desire -- or rather his decision -- to apply the model of the "Yemeni solution," according to a high-ranking source who received Russia's envoy. If the said source and the Russian message prove true, this would mean that Moscow has not restricted its discussion in this direction to the Russian-American channel. And that is noteworthy. It is noteworthy, yet it has also led some to consider Russia's stance, which publicly insists on not changing the regime, to represent an attempt to ensure safe passage to the Syrian President and his family, provided that guarantees that the regime in Damascus would be maintained are obtained. Others have interpreted these stances on the basis that there was no way to separate the family from the regime, and that what Moscow means is thus not for the Baath Party to remain in control of the monopoly of power, but rather that Moscow will not accept for the regime in Damascus to be toppled and for the Muslim Brotherhood to rise to power in its stead.

Russia has, from the beginning, made it clear to the other major powers with permanent membership at the Security Council that it rejects the rise of Islamists to power in Syria. Indeed, it has interpreted the stances taken by the West -- and especially the United States -- in the places where change has occurred in the Arab World as another bargain having been struck with the Islamists in order to draft a new regional map that would intentionally exclude Russia, in order to remove its influence from the region. Putin's Moscow remembered that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of its fragmentation had come through the gateway of Afghanistan, when the United States allied with Jihadists and with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This had been the key to ending the era of the two poles and starting that of the United States' monopoly over the superpower status. Moreover, Russia felt that the rise of Islamists to power would surround it at its borders through the five Muslim republics of Central Asia, in addition to the repercussions of such a rise on Chechnya. For all of these reasons, what Moscow wants in any "Grand Bargain" is, first, for the United States and the other members of NATO to recognize Russia's status as an active major power, and one that is entitled to a strategic foothold in the region starting from Syria; and second, for those countries not to dare make light of it or insult it at the Security Council, as they did, in Moscow's opinion, in the way they dealt with the Libyan uprising.

Third, the anger shown by Russia and the risks it is taking with its relations with the six GCC countries certainly have an Iranian and a Syrian dimension, but they essentially stem from its overwhelming discontent at the features of the semi-alliance that emerged between NATO and the GCC on the issue of Libya, and what this entails in terms of forging a partnership between the two for the sole purpose of defining the features of a new regional order, and subsequently of a new world order. Russia has therefore resolved on the issue of Syria to do away with this partnership or alliance and to reshuffle cards, in order to inform all those it may concern that a mistake has been made that cannot be corrected, and that what has happened has struck a major blow in terms of relations of trust.

Fourth, to return to the alternative regime in Damascus, Russia will not accept any American, Gulf Arab or other promises about Islamists/Jihadists -- according to its own understanding of them -- not seizing power. It wants to be the sponsor of the alternative regime itself, and has therefore reached a final decision regarding the "Yemeni solution."

Fifth, Iran is important for Russia, but Moscow does not link its fate at the Syrian level to its fate at the Iranian level. It is soundly analyzing the current situation and examining its options. One of these options is to move forward with strengthening the bonds of international "consensus" on the Iranian nuclear issue in order to protect Tehran from the military option, and as part of Moscow's resolve not to allow the admission of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a new member of the nuclear club.

The trade-off could take place in Syria, provided that the United States accepts for Moscow to take the driver's seat in finding a solution that would prevent the eruption of a bloody civil war in Syria, and for the authority to define the features of the alternative regime in Damascus to also be Russia's. Anything else would lead to ever-increasing rigidity by Vladimir Putin and tension for his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, despite the tremendous embarrassment caused them by the Syrian government and the massacres committed by the "Shabbiha" (state-sponsored thugs) in order to eradicate the opposition.

Damascus might interpret such a formula on the basis of Washington refusing to comply with Moscow's wishes, and thus commit another grave mistake. Indeed, Syria's leadership is still implementing a strategy for remaining in power on the basis of its assumption that Moscow is still clinging to maintaining the regime in Damascus. It is wagering on NATO's unwillingness to direct any military strike, as well as on the period of time stretching until the American presidential elections in November, during which President Barack Obama will not be taking any risks. It is also wagering on a real fear among a substantial part of the Syrian population from the Islamists seizing power, and it is watching the events unfold in Egypt with a great deal of relief.

The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate to the presidency of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, seeks to send out reassurances by pledging to establish a presidential council that would include Copts, and a broadened coalition government that would not be headed by the Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, has come out with a new fatwa to reassure people about the rule of Islamists. And the head of Tunisia's Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, has intentionally sent messages of moderation, pledging that there would be "no monopoly or hoarding" of power. He said, addressing the U.S.-Islamic World Forum held by the Brookings Institute in Doha this week, "Our diagnosis of the facts on the ground was a source of error, and this has driven us to recognize the principle of consensus with others and the principle of citizenship as the basis for the distribution of rights." He implicitly admitted that Tunisia's civil society had forced the Muslim Brotherhood to back down on imposing Sharia law in the constitution. Yet the battle for the constitution is ongoing in Tunisia, as it is in Egypt. And in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's monopoly of all centers of power has come to frighten a large part of the Egyptian people, especially those whose revolution was hijacked by Islamist movements that dedicated it to seizing power and to monopolizing the process of defining a new face for Egypt, one alien to the nature the country has had historically.

Noteworthy is the fact that many American experts, or the circle of those who reject the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), overlook basic foundations of the democracy and freedom which the Egyptian Revolution had sought after as they devote themselves to gaining the approval of the Islamists and consider them to represent the Revolution, frighteningly ignoring the youths who had made the Revolution happen. It is striking that the attempt by the Islamists to monopolize all branches of power does not worry them, just as they give no great importance to the personal status or the freedom of individuals sought by the liberals who overthrew the rule of tyranny and the monopoly of power. This might be the result of short-sightedness or of "ill intent," but the rush of the Americans to embrace the Islamists has a strange flavor and a suspicious scent, especially as non-Islamist movements in Egypt are being intentionally marginalized and ignored. Perhaps this represents part of the doubts felt by some Egyptians towards the Islamists. And perhaps such a rush represents the unintended "kiss of death."

More importantly, there is an important lesson here for Islamist political parties, whether Salafist or whether affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is that the number of votes in their favor dropping by 50 percent in the presidential election must represent a necessary wake up call. Indeed, partnership in power is undoubtedly one of the rights of Islamist political parties, but seeking to monopolize power is unacceptable, whether it is new or old.

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