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Raghida Dergham

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Russia's Concern Over the West's Alliance With the Islamists

Posted: 02/ 3/2012 4:06 pm

New York - The issue of Syria reached a decisive juncture this week, in a scene rarely witnessed at the UN Security Council, when the League of Arab States lodged a complaint against a regime in an Arab country. The issue has become internationalized, even if Russia prevents the Security Council from adopting the resolution Arab countries have requested via their League by making use of the veto -- albeit it might not do so.

Indeed, discussions among major powers are no longer focused on maintaining Bashar Al-Assad's presidency and on the survival of his regime. Rather, they have entered the stage of considering the arrangements, dates, conditions and circumstances of his departure. Such discussions are noteworthy in terms of their impact on the relationship of the regime in Damascus with its regional surroundings; in terms of the course of the relationship between Russia and Syria; as well as in terms of the international understandings being reached among major powers and over a new map of the Middle East.

Reaching the Security Council does not in itself represent a "magic wand," as Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Al-Arabi has stated. It is a milestone that has its own particularity and importance, because it is an arena for confrontation as well as for understanding and deals. Bashar Al-Assad realizes the danger inherent in internationalizing the Syrian issue, and this is why it frightens, angers and baffles him.

Russia's stances in particular are becoming more confused, because part of them suggests Moscow's resolve to defend his regime and refuse to see him step down from power, while another part indicates that Moscow now admits to the possibility of his departure, and in fact to its inevitability. Russian state diplomacy has escalated the matter in Washington as well as in Moscow. It has suggested that it would not accept a Security Council resolution that would back the Arab league's plan for political transition that would start with Assad handing over presidential powers to his Vice President, and would culminate with a national unity government and elections.

All of this is part of the negotiation process over the draft resolution presented by Morocco, the only Arab country on the Security Council, backed by Arab and Western countries. Russia's escalation has come to demonstrate to the United States, Britain, France and the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) that what it considered to have been deception and disdain for it in the experience of Libya through a Security Council resolution, would never happen again under any circumstances.

Moscow has made sure this time to be aware of every detail so as to prevent what happened with the Libyan issue from being repeated. That was when NATO gave itself the right to carry out military operations and bomb Libya based on its own interpretation of the Security Council resolution, which Russia had sanctioned. Russia thus appeared naïve and powerless to stop NATO from carrying out its operations, which made it feel extremely bitter. This time, Moscow sought the utmost guarantees for there to be no military intervention in Syria, nor any UN sanctions, siege or weapons embargo. It negotiated and forced Western countries to be absolutely clear, the main feature of its stance being: We will not be deceived and disregarded again. At the same time, and while it seemed that the process of political transition in Damascus was the most difficult issue, Moscow has engaged Arab countries over the details of the transitional process, even as it was publicly stating that it absolutely rejects any reference to Assad stepping down in a Security Council resolution.

The Chairman of the Arab League's Ministerial Committee on Syria, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, did not just speak of the Syrian regime's "killing machine" in the Security Council Chamber. He stayed in New York and entered as a negotiator with Security Council member-states so as to facilitate reaching a resolution in the Security Council to usher in the process of political transition in Syria, based on the Arab League's plan. He negotiated, applied pressure and came out with a formula here and a way out there so as not to lose Russia or embarrass it. He met several times with elected members of the Security Council, such as India, to convince them to support the resolution. He put forward with the delegation of the Syrian opposition represented by Burhan Ghalioun several ideas that urged a positive response to Russia's proposals, which called for leaders of the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition to meet in Moscow. He sought to alter the course of matters with Russia, from opposing it to becoming a partner in the road to a process of political transition in Syria.

Nabil Al-Arabi was present in every sense of the word in these efforts, and he also took the utmost care not to overstep his powers as Secretary-General of the Arab League, which includes member-states that have reservations on internationalizing the Syrian issue. His presence in the Security Council Chamber as Secretary General of the League to testify and denounce the Syrian regime and President Bashar Al-Assad, represented in itself an unprecedented occurrence, one which Security Council member-states were forced to take into utmost consideration. It was then that China thought fully of what its stances would mean if they were to lead to a confrontation with the League of Arab States, and decided to inform Russia that it was embarrassed. And it was then that Russia decided that the dynamics of how the Syrian issue was being addressed at the Security Council had reached a new juncture, and subsequently altered its stances and negotiated in a different manner.

In parallel to the escalation in Russia's official discourse, noteworthy was what Russian political analysts close to the thinking of the decision-makers have said, some of them speaking to Arab television. One of them, Andrei Stepanov, made a very noteworthy appearance on the show "Panorama" on Al-Arabiya channel, in which the author of this article also participated. He said that the possibility of Assad leaving is now present in the minds of Russia's leaders, and that Moscow admits to such a possibility, on the condition that it does not take place forcibly, but rather voluntarily. He said that Moscow needed some time to deal with what such a departure would require in terms of immunity, asylum and the details of handing over the regime.

This is important because it points to the opposite of Moscow's official discourse, which suggests to some that it clings to maintaining the Assad regime and refuses for him to step down or leave. Yet even the official discourse, upon closer examination, reveals that Moscow's stance rests on rejecting the use by Western countries of the Security Council to topple the regime in Damascus, yet without this meaning that Moscow clings to maintaining the regime no matter what. For instance, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin complained angrily at a press conference of a question based on the assumption Russia's opposition to the West's attempt to topple the regime meant that Moscow insists on preserving the regime.

This week, during side negotiations over the draft resolution at the Security Council, with the participation of Hamad Bin Jassim and Nabil Al-Arabi, there were indications of two issues becoming prominent in talks with Russia, namely: The links between Russia's support of the Arab League's plan for political transition and Russia's call for a meeting in Moscow between Syria's government and opposition; and second, the way in which Assad would leave and power would be handed over from the Baath regime, which has ruled for forty years, to a national government and elections. In other words, Russia seems as if it had entered the line of the formula of departure in order to be party to it, not just to provide asylum and immunity, but in fact also in order to be a main partner in decision-making on the issue of Syria after the current regime. This way it would not be excluded, deceived or disparaged, as it was in the issue of Libya.

One of the sources of Russia's fears from the change that is taking place in the Arab region is the rise of Islamist political parties to power, in the places where the change known as the Arab Spring has occurred. Indeed, there is in Russia a large Muslim minority, in addition to the problem of Chechnya, and it does not want the power of the Islamists to spread to its neighborhood and to its home soil. It is worried not just about the rise of the Islamists, but also about those who stand behind their rise to power, at the regional and international levels, whether it is Qatar, Turkey, Europe or the United States. Russia has many doubts at this level, most prominently: what is behind redrawing the map of the region on the basis of the Islamists, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, being in power? And why are Western countries, headed by the United States, rushing to roll out the red carpet for them?

One major American decision-maker on the affairs of the Middle East defended the US's policy, saying that the Barack Obama administration does not want to find itself outside the circle of power in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Morocco and the other countries in which the Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, have achieved prominence. He said, defending the US's high praise of Islamists, that those in the ranks of moderation, modernity and secularism had "failed," and he repeated "failed," and that the US Administration has thus found itself faced with having no choice but to choose the Islamists. Such incredible talk based on justifying the rush towards the Islamists under the pretext of the "failure" of the Liberals only raises doubts that exceed the doubts held by Russia. There is indeed a solid logic behind Russia's doubts regarding the West -- and in particular the United States -- adopting the Muslim Brotherhood, especially as the Soviet Union fell as a result of the alliance between the Americans and the Islamists in "Jihad" in Afghanistan.

Today, Russia finds itself in a state of calculated siege, emerging through the new semi-alliance between the Americans -- and the West in general -- and the Islamists. The Barack Obama administration seems to be at the forefront of this new alliance, which it justifies as containment, while it could realistically represent an encouragement of religious ideology at the expense of modernity, secularism and liberalism. Those in the ranks of such moderation feel that the Obama administration has betrayed them and thereby done away with any trust that had remained in the American values, which claim to respect citizens' rights, and a civil constitution. They also feel that the Obama administration has rushed to abandon the youths and the women of the revolution, either in a decision taken in advance which raises questions, or on the basis of placing interests above any values and principles, and in fact at their expense. Such resentment shared by those in the ranks of Arab moderation and by Russia will not lead to a partnership between the two, as long as Moscow seems determined to protect the regime in Damascus from being held to account.

If, on the other hand, it were to alter its stance and contribute to a process of political transition that would put a stop to the bloodshed and lead to a secular non-ideological Syria, which would maintain stability after the Baath Party, it would thereby be opening a notable new chapter in its relations with Arab modernists and secularists in the face of the American-European alliance with the newly-established Islamists in power.

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