06/15/2012 06:04 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Moscow Will Not Be Able to Continue to Be Arrogant or Deceitful

Most likely, public escalation in the negotiations between Russia and the United States will continue until the G20 summit at the beginning of next week in Mexico, where U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time to discuss the bilateral relationship between the two countries as a whole; as well as its regional dimensions -- most prominently with regard to Syria and Iran. Then it will become clear whether Washington and Moscow have reached an understanding over the elements of the "Grand Bargain" and the features of the new regional order, or whether disagreements between the two are radical to the point of confrontation.

If the result is to bury hopes of finding peaceful solutions in Syria and of Iran cooperating on the nuclear issue -- both being sponsored by Russia -- then most likely a group of Arab and Western countries will move towards "Bosnification" in Syria, rather than towards applying the Libyan model. For one thing, the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) will not intervene militarily in Syria the way it bombed Libya to topple the rule of Muammar Gaddafi there, just as the Security Council will not issue a resolution granting such powers, in view of the Russian-Chinese veto lying in wait for such a resolution. There will therefore be absolutely no repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria.

"Afghanization" seems increasingly likely, however, with everything this entails in terms of wars of attrition, and of regional and international forces fighting in the Syrian arena. As for the option of "Bosnification," it is less likely to prolong the humanitarian tragedy than "Afghanization," because such a model would involve the cooperation of a group of countries in a partnership that would not wait for the blessing of the Security Council, so as not to fall hostage to the Russian-Chinese veto, in order to impose safe zones and corridors to provide military support to the Syrian opposition, including air strikes. All of this will be possible if the talks between Obama and Putin were to fail to lead to understandings over a comprehensive agreement between the two. Such a possibility still stands and has not yet been excluded, despite the escalation in public statements.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seems like a fierce spokesman for Russian foreign policy, but he is also an expert diplomat who understands the significance of timing in striking major bargains among countries. His visit this week to Tehran was not necessarily intended for coordinating escalation and confrontation with the United States, but perhaps the opposite. It was most likely a visit intended to pave the way for a breakthrough, unless Iran's leadership was to prove obstinate and absolutely refuse to concede over two main issues by clinging to maintaining the ruling regime in Damascus and refusing for it to leave power, following the model of the "Yemeni solution," which would be based on Bashar al Assad agreeing to hand over the reins of power. Secondly, Iran may cling to refusing to suspend or stop uranium enrichment to the levels that would give Tehran the ability to manufacture a nuclear bomb when it so wishes.

The fact that Sergey Lavrov reiterated that Russia does not cling to maintaining the regime in Damascus, even in the midst of his debate with his American counterpart Hillary Clinton, bears important indications. To be sure, Russia has made it clear to many of those concerned with the Syrian issue that it does not mind seeing the "Yemeni solution" in Syria, and that it was at the same time resolved to be the sponsor of the alternative, so as for it not to occur to anyone that it might be willing to abandon a major foothold in the Middle East. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin has sent envoys to inform several capitals of this, just as he has negotiated over the dates of the process of political transition in Damascus, and over how Bashar al Assad would leave power with immunity and a face-saving formula. Thus, the disagreement between Moscow and Tehran is a radical one over the issue of the survival of the regime in Damascus: Moscow wishes to find a formula for an exit strategy, while Tehran absolutely opposes the scenario of regime change through any such formula.

Secondly, Moscow is in agreement with the group of "5+1" over refusing to allow the Islamic Republic of Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb. Moscow may oppose the means by which Tehran might be prevented from achieving nuclear capabilities, in particular military ones, but it does not endorse what Tehran wants. A disagreement may therefore ensue in this respect if Tehran were to prove obstinate and insist on confrontation. And just as Moscow is not about to destroy its bilateral relations with Washington, Tehran wishes to repair its relations with the U.S. capital, as well. They both seek exceptional bilateral relations. Tehran wishes to hold direct bilateral relations with Washington, and this represents a priority for the Islamic Republic of Iran. With respect to Moscow, no matter how weak its trust in Washington may become, no matter how much it may bemoan the latter's policies, and no matter how much escalation may befall their relationship, American-Russian relations remain at the forefront of Vladimir Putin's priorities -- especially as what Putin wants is for the U.S. Administration to take him seriously as a major power once again, not as a mere marginal player in international relations in the era of unipolarism. It is a matter of pride for Putin, and Lavrov knows how to express this with his facial expressions and his arrogant tone.

Putin and Lavrov are experts at the art of politics and the art of negotiation, and they understand perfectly the importance of timing. And the timing is in favor of the Russian negotiators before the American presidential elections on November 4th, because Barack Obama is also in need of a "Grand Bargain" that would spare him military involvement -- whether in Syria or in Iran. Moreover, Putin and Lavrov understand the significance of timing in terms of Russia's name being tied to massacres, even if such an impression is unfair. Indeed, a major power cannot maintain a policy that ties its reputation to massacres being committed, no matter how great the interests it may have with the government of the country accused of committing them, and in which innocent children are falling victim.

Furthermore, Western and Arab countries are willing to grant Russia a position of leadership in reaching a solution, as well as the position of sponsor of the process of political transition in Syria. Moscow will therefore not be able to continue to act arrogantly or to give any impression that it might be acting deceitfully with regard to the process of political transition in order to buy time, while the images of children continue to strike a nerve in international public opinion. Indeed, the massacres have become an element that has a direct impact on shaping the future in Syria. And it will not be prudent to try to convince anyone to say that these massacres have nothing to do with the Syrian government, as the mere fact that they are taking place means that the government has collapsed. Moscow therefore desires to engage in any process that would avoid a reputation that is worsening because of the massacres. This is in addition to the fact that it realizes that prolonging the current situation will lead to exacerbating extremism and "Afghanizing" Syria, which would in turn lead to Moscow losing its foothold there, as it did in Afghanistan.

Lavrov visited Tehran before the G20 summit in Mexico, having realized that there was where he could shape the bargain, and that it was there that understandings could collapse and the option of "Bosnifying" Syria could prevail. The most important link in the chain consists of the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- who might hold a five-sided summit in Mexico next week during the G20 summit. Indeed, if those countries were to agree over the process of political transition, they would be expected to finalize their agreement by announcing that they will hold an international conference on the issue of Syria called for by Moscow.

Iran's attendance at that meeting -- as Moscow wishes -- represents a hurdle that could be overcome if understandings are reached over the elements of the "Grand Bargain" -- but it remains a hurdle for now. Tehran is a direct party to the war taking place in Syria, according to the opinion of a majority among the five powers, and it publicly declares that it stands with maintaining the regime and against the process of political transition. Additionally, there are reports of military supplies being provided to undisciplined groups that support the regime by carrying out operations that fall under the category of crimes against humanity.

Tehran is also accused of violating the Security Council resolution that requires it not to supply any country with military equipment and weapons. All of these elements make it difficult for the Islamic Republic to participate in the conference on Syria in Moscow -- at least in its first phase. This does not mean excluding Tehran completely from a solution in Syria, if Iran were to decide to be party to the proposed solution on the basis of a process of political transition from the current regime to an alternative one -- something it does not seem to agree on. What this means is that the five major powers -- including Russia and China -- will not make the "Grand Bargain" contingent on what Tehran deems appropriate for Syria, especially as Iran in turn stands on the edge of great fragility in its relations with those countries on the nuclear issue.

Moscow will host the third meeting concerning the Iranian nuclear issue, after negotiations have been resumed between the 5+1 and Iran in Istanbul and then in Baghdad. These talks are still at the stage of buying time and searching for a formula of step-by-step trust-building, and no breakthrough has so far been made. Yet everyone knows that things will be different after the American presidential elections, and that Barack Obama or the U.S. President will not be able to remain silent while Iran moves forward towards obtaining nuclear weapons.

Indeed, Barack Obama has promised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will put an end to the exclusivity of the policy of "containment," based on isolating Iran and sanctions -- if it persists in refusing to suspend uranium enrichment to the 20 percent mark. Moreover, Netanyahu has succeeded in implicating Obama in having the United States take measures itself to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from turning into a nuclear state. Tehran is therefore in a difficult and complicated position, regardless of how much it boasts and pretends to be fine. Moreover, what Tehran wants in these negotiations in terms of its regional role and guaranteeing its influence beyond its borders is not acceptable, especially as such sought-after influence is based not just on controlling the fate of Iraq, but also that of Syria -- and that is unacceptable at both the Arab and Western levels at the moment.

Regional players may later join the understandings reached between the five major powers -- understandings based on a number of elements, among them the shape the transitional period will take in Syria, as well as the dates for handing over power and holding elections. Yet regional states -- Iran on the one hand, and the Arab Gulf states headed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other -- are not idly waiting for such understandings to be reached. The Arab Gulf states have entered the phase of preparing the alternative to these understandings -- if they were to fail -- and this alternative is "Bosnification" in the form of measures to be taken with Western countries, as well as with Turkey and other Arab states, which would not be subject to Russia's approval of a Security Council resolution that would grant the authority to intervene militarily.

Yet today, alongside the progress on the two parallel tracks -- one based on giving the role of sponsor of the political solution for Syria to Russia, and the other on preparing to take measures on the field without waiting for a UN Security Council resolution -- there is also a movement at the United Nations on two parallel tracks, one in support of Russia's role in leading the process of political transition, and the other in embarrassing Russia over its repeated use of the veto to prevent action from being taken at the international level, while UN reports speak of systematic killings of children being carried out in Syria.

The debate taking place between Russia and the West over the flow of weapons to Syria indicates that they are still far from an agreement at the moment -- at least during the phase of the countdown to the G20 summit in a few days. The devil lies in the detail, and there is still no trust among many international and regional players. Yet the developments on the field have begun to impose realism and to dictate timeframes for everyone.