12/14/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Moscow's Role in Post-Assad Syria

The elasticity and contradiction in Russia's stances on Syria is misleading Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad even further, implicating Iran's leadership in mistaken calculations, and isolating Russia itself, which today seems as if it is shooting itself in the foot. China seems increasingly embarrassed, being forced to go along such confusion in Russia's stances, which oscillate at times purposely and at others confusedly. There are those who believe that China has become prepared for an exit strategy for itself from the concomitance between its own stances and those of Russia, which was embodied in their third dual veto at the Security Council. Moscow seems today to stand at a crossroad of contradictions - at times suggesting that it is prepared to abandon Bashar Al-Assad and participate in shaping the alternative in order to be a pillar of the "day after" he leaves power; while at others seething in anger, leveling accusations and widening the gap between itself and the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The SNC has recently obtained broad international recognition as the representative of the Syrian people, including from US President Barack Obama on the eve of the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakesh, attended by over a hundred Arab and Western countries. Whatever justifications there may be for the stances taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin, they spring from his national or personal pride. Indeed, Russia has begun to pay an exorbitant price for Putin's policies, and to miss the train for Syria and the Arab region. The opportunity to reach a "Grand Bargain" has gone, as has with it that of Russia playing a pioneering and honorable role in the region. Yet today, there is one last opportunity that requires Moscow, as well as Washington, to seriously and sincerely invest in partnership, based on understanding the interests - and the complexes - of the other side. That is why it is necessary to build on Dublin after Marrakesh in great haste, without delay or procrastination. Thus, if Tartus is a Russian "base" that Moscow will not abandon no matter what, it is time for Washington to agree to it, especially as the real relationship will be between a new government in Damascus and a Russian government that chose to invest in the former regime and made mistaken calculations. And if Putin's government wants to send a message signifying that it wishes to repair its relationship with Syria of the "day after", it is time for it to quickly adopt a clear and coherent policy towards each of the regime and the SNC. It is time for it to cut the losses it has suffered so far, in order to save what is left of its interests.

The contradiction in Russia's stances seems deliberate, perhaps for considerations which the Kremlin understands, no matter how arbitrary they might seem. If this is true, then the problem is truly a fundamental one and will most likely lead to a worse outcome. Indeed, it does not make sense for Moscow to send its envoys to different capitals, some to speak with disdain of Bashar Al-Assad and express willingness to abandon him, and others to speak a language of insistence on him playing a role in the process of political transition and remaining in power until 2014. At times, one Russian official would say that Moscow is prepared to engage and participate in discussing the "day after", and at other times a different official would say that Moscow has not yet reached the conclusion that the regime in Damascus will fall, and that Bashar Al-Assad is in fact still standing and will be victorious. Such elasticity and such contradiction has harmed Russia and increased its international isolation. Part of this isolation has been imposed by Moscow on itself, having refused the Moroccan government's invitation to attend the Marrakesh meeting, under the pretext that this meeting does not support the Syrian people in its entirety, as if Russia's stance in support of the regime represented support for the whole of the Syrian people - as Moscow claims. In any event, the outcome of this is that Moscow excluded itself by itself when it burned the card of the Security Council, which it itself crippled with its third veto.

Today, there are publicly held stances demanding that a "timeframe" be specified for the steps expected from the Security Council and from the joint United Nations and Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said at the Marrakesh meeting, because "the Syrian people cannot remain hostage to the Security Council's open-ended timetable". Qatar's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khalid Al-Attiyah, made it clear at the Manama Dialogue meeting in Bahrain that "Russia is very important to us, and we have been trying (...) to convince them", but that "at the end of the day, we have grown enough now to know how things can be done legally through the United Nations, if Russia or other countries still insist on vetoing or blocking the Syrian people from getting their rights". He added that "we will be thinking seriously of doing it through the United Nations General Assembly" under the slogan of the "United for Peace Resolution" (UNSC Resolution 377). This grants the General Assembly binding powers similar to those of the Security Council, bearing in mind that three out of the five countries with permanent membership at the Security Council are members of the Friends of Syria Group, which has recognized the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd publicly stated at the Manama Dialogue that China was prepared, by his understanding, to break away from adhering to the veto with Russia at the Security Council, and suggested heading quickly to the Security Council with a draft resolution in order to achieve the split between the stances of Russia and China. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, following the Marrakesh meeting, that America was relying on the triumph of the Syrian opposition by force of arms, and that it may be right to do so. Washington has begun to work on supplying weapons, having realized that its delay to engage in the Syrian issue has contributed to militarizing the Syrian uprising, even if to a lesser degree than Russia's major contribution to militarization, not just by neutralizing the Security Council with its veto, but also by purposely prolonging the conflict and maintaining the influx of Russian weapons to the regime in accordance with its military contracts. Moscow's talk of a political solution in Syria is now meaningless unless it rushes to negotiate over the form of, and the names of the people involved in, the process of political transition without Bashar Al-Assad. There is no longer anyone talking about Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa being appointed by Bashar Al-Assad to look into the process of transition towards a new alternative regime. There is talk about defectors from the regime, such as former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, heading a transitional government divided equally between the regime and the opposition. But yesterday's talk of an appointment by Assad - with him remaining in power - has become a thing of the past.

There is renewed talk of the possibility of Assad reaching the conviction that it is time - if it is not too late - for him to "leave of his own will instead of being expelled by force or killed". Russia, according to a Russian official, would not host Assad: "we would not host him, nor would we threaten him" - adding that Assad was "not the problem; and neither is his staying or leaving, nor his fate". This stance in particular contributes to widening the gap between Moscow and all the countries of the Friends of Syria Group, as well as the SNC. It also contributes to increasing the odds of settling the matter militarily, rather than favoring a mixture of political and military solutions. There are discrepancies between the stances of the Friends of Syria countries on the kind of military support to be provided to the Syrian opposition, as well as on the United States designating the Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group, in view of its links to Al-Qaeda. Qatar seems the most extreme in its stances, insisting on not excluding any of those fighting in Syria or designating them as terrorists, because this would be "opening the door again for [foreign] intervention to chase the monster", as Qatar's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said, insisting that "calling Allahu Akbar (...) is not a sign of extremism".

He also said that there was no longer any need to impose a no-fly zone from the outside, because those fighting in Syria "do not want us to provide them with a no-fly zone", as they are "ready and prepared to impose their own no-fly zone". At the same time, Al-Attiyah warned that delay in settling the matter would lead to the growth of extremism, and to it turning into a "monster" that would be difficult to contain. Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah voiced a different opinion, saying that it would be wrong to allow weapons to fall "into the wrong hands", and that we should be aware of "where and to whom" these weapons would be going, because we are "worried about terrorism in Syria". He also said that "we are very concerned about the spread" of what is taking place in Syria to neighboring countries, in particular Lebanon and Jordan.

Washington, for its part, has made its decision about the likes of the Al-Nusra Front by placing it on its terrorist list, and has made it clear that it had formed the resolve to achieve a qualitative leap, which has come in the form of recognizing the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Such political and moral recognition represents a radical step that will require taking further steps later. The significance of such a step is that the Obama Administration has reached the conclusion that containing the likes of the Al-Nusra Front requires preempting the Syrian opposition having to lean and rely on such groups. This necessitates recognizing the SNC and gathering support for it, in order to channel aid through it and through its Supreme Military Council. It has also reached the conclusion that the United States would neither be able to carry out its threats to take measures if the regime in Damascus were to make use of chemical weapons on its own, nor to be forced to take military action against the spread of the likes of Al-Qaeda in Syria. This is why it has rushed to preempt having to either spend money on Syria or get involved militarily there.

The partnership sought by Washington does not exclude Russia in a premeditated manner. In fact, the United States still seeks partnership with and assistance from Russia, on the condition that it makes its decision now, without any elasticity and procrastination. It wants it to become convinced that this is the beginning of the end, and that the time has come for seriousness in Russia's talks over the "day after" without insisting on Bashar Al-Assad being a main pillar of the transitional process. If Moscow were to take such a decision, there are indications that Washington would be willing to bargain and offer concessions, especially regarding the issue of the port of Tartus. To be sure, the Obama Administration wants an exit strategy from the crisis of getting implicated and of the growth of extremism, and it wants Moscow as a partner in an exit strategy for Assad. It does not want additional months of disagreeing over the interpretation of what the Geneva understanding means in terms of Assad playing a role in the transitional process or not.

The role played by Moscow remains an important one, whether it chooses to play it positively or negatively. Indeed, Iran's leadership is riding on the dovetails of the Russian veto and considers it to be indicative of Russia's insistence on remaining an active party to the war taking place in Syria. The burden on Moscow, and in particular on Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, is a moral one towards Moscow's allies, in the battle against Syria and towards Russia, not just towards Syria.

The balance of power on the battlefield is a different one now, and the battle is on the verge of an end that could come quickly or could take long. How much longer the conflict will last is a Russian decision par excellence. As for the form the new regional order will take, participating in shaping it remains possible for Russia if it hurries. If, on the other hand, it were to drag its feet, it may miss the train and entrench enmity with the majority of the peoples in the region, which would not at all be in its interest.