06/29/2012 11:44 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

The Geneva Talks: The Russians Sponsoring a Political Solution in Syria?

Beirut -- Tomorrow, in the presence of the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council, in addition to Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, as well as the Secretary-Generals of both the United Nations and the League of Arab States, a serious race will start in Geneva. It will be between, on the one hand, the track of a political solution in Syria, based on a process of transition to a phase following the presidency of Bashar Al-Assad, and on the other, the track of confrontation and the tug-of-war between major players on the international scene. UN-AL Envoy Kofi Annan will be exerting his utmost efforts to announce the continuation of his six-point plan, regardless of what happens in terms of understandings being reached or disagreements taking place and ways parting. He would be able to get his share of appreciation and gratitude if the meeting of the "action group" at this high level of representation manages to clarify the features of the "roadmap" being drafted by Annan and to initiate an international and regional understanding on the mechanisms of the process of political transition in Syria. In such efforts, Annan is in dire need of stances and measures to be taken by Russia that would put a stop to the method of slowly rationing preparations for a political solution in words, while escalating, in deeds, by sending ships carrying weapons and helicopters to the regime in Damascus.

In other words, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are the ones now putting Kofi Annan in jeopardy and threatening his mission with failure, as they have not ceased to exploit Annan's mission in the service of Russia's stance in negotiations, excessively and without a timeframe. Moreover, Kofi Annan himself is endangering his plan and his mission, by continuing to navigate to shape relations among major powers while the situation on the ground in Syria continues to deteriorate, massacres continue to take place and the bloodshed caused by the military-based solution continues to increase. Furthermore, developments on the ground have introduced a new element this week, not just in Turkish-Syrian relations, but also in the development of relations between Turkey and Russia towards disagreement, not towards reaching an understanding.

All this escalation could be part of the beginning of the countdown to grand understandings and bargains among the major international and regional players. Yet this does not negate the possibility of collapse for the diplomatic track of a political solution through an organized process of transition, in favor of the military track - i.e. settling the matter through a war of attrition, in addition to intensifying the preparations currently being made for a qualitative shift in foreign roles of support to the Syrian opposition, confronting Russia's support for the ruling institution in Damascus. Indeed, buying time with delays and procrastination or through Annan's flexible plan had been a demand nearly agreed upon between Washington, who wants to freeze everything and stop time until the end of the presidential elections, and Moscow, who wants to prolong the life of the regime in Syria and seeks radical concessions from the members of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) - and most prominently the United States of America. Yet time is hounding the decision-makers, and is imposing on them to stop taking pleasant walks in the gardens of diplomacy while dead bodies pile up in the streets of Syria and the fabric of Syrian society falls apart.

Kofi Annan has, from the onset, considered that the task entrusted to him, as the joint Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, to resolve the crisis in Syria, was not a purely local or regional one. He has viewed his mandate from a wider scope, one that befits his position and his standing as a former Secretary-General of the United Nations. Kofi Annan has therefore decided that his primary task was to bring the stances of the United States and Russia into agreement first, then do the same between Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France, in view of their being permanent members of the Security Council. Moreover, Kofi Annan has, from the beginning too, made sure not to be treated as a mere envoy - Being the man who appointed envoys and who received them as a UN Secretary-General, he sought to be an envoy extraordinaire. Kofi Annan thus created for himself a mission extraordinaire and taken to translating and interpreting the task entrusted him so as to fit what he had decided would be his method.

The process of political transition had originally been at the core of the tasks entrusted to him, bearing in mind that Kofi Annan's mandate is also based on the decisions of the League of Arab States, including the decision that called on President Bashar Al-Assad to hand over power to his Vice President, Farouk Al-Sharaa - in a process of political transition that would lead to elections and a new regime in Damascus. Kofi Annan has temporarily suspended this aspect of his mandate until he can contribute to forging an understanding between the five countries over a method for heading in this direction, considering the Russian-Chinese veto to represent an essential obstacle to its implementation. This is why Kofi Annan has turned to weaving a consensual relationship among the permanent members of the Security Council, as a priority. In light of this, and in fact as a basis for it, Kofi Annan has focused on satisfying and appeasing Russia, to such an extent that Russia's Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said once that Kofi Annan's plan was Russia's plan, and that his method was the only sound method to be followed.

Kofi Annan can today say that it was his approach that has led to the radical change in Russia's stance, from absolute support for the survival of the regime and for keeping Bashar Al-Assad in power, to agreeing to a process of political transition and seeking a solution similar to the Yemeni model - based on willingly stepping down in return for immunity and guarantees. Such a claim would be appropriate. In fact, Kofi Annan may well turn out right and come down in history as the architect of the diplomatic solution in Syria, if the Geneva talks and the steps that will follow were to lead to Russia sponsoring a political solution and playing the role of a sponsor for the transitional period and what follows it.

If, on the other hand, Russia's leadership were to betray expectations and wagers on its sincerity and on its resolve to implement what it has been suggesting for several weeks, it would have placed Kofi Annan in a predicament. He would have to choose between continuing to navigate and what the moral leadership he has been entrusted with would require him to do, if he comes to the conclusion that his person and his diplomacy have been exploited. All of this will not be settled at the first meeting of the "contact group" formed by Kofi Annan and summoned to his headquarters in Geneva. This is the beginning of another process, not the end of one.

This is why preparations continue to be made on the track of taking the necessary measures in the case of Syria falling into the midst of an open-ended "process", contingent on concessions and trade-offs. The talks are certainly difficult ones, especially as they are not restricted to Syria or the region, but are also bilateral and international at once. Iran lies at the forefront of intersecting international, regional and local concessions and compromises.

Vladimir Putin wants Iran to attend the meetings of the "contact group", and Annan supports him in this, but is trying not to fall into a confrontation with the United States and with the Western and Arab countries that reject the presence of Iran, for numerous reasons. Putin and Annan consider Iran to be part of the solution in Syria, and that it should be made to participate in these talks on such a basis. The West and influential Arab Gulf states consider Iran to be part of the problem and point to its role in supporting the Syrian regime in its bloody crackdown against the Syrian uprising.

Putin's insistence and Annan's desire to include Iran's participation in the political solution are being met with rejection from the West and the Arabs for numerous reasons, namely: first, concern that Iran would become an additional instrument of procrastination and compromise in support of the regime's survival, and that the Russian player might use it to backtrack on its commitments and on its suggestions of change towards a process of political transition.

Second, this would grant international legitimacy to the insistence of the Islamic Republic of Iran on being a major regional player beyond its borders and in particular on the Arab scene. This would allow Iran to wage battles of influence, ideological mobilization and hegemony - which is unacceptable to the Gulf Arabs and to Saudi Arabia in particular, Indeed, this would have many implications this beyond Syria, which has become the most important arena for the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the identity of the Arab region, as well as over regional influence.

Third, Western and Arab countries fear that inviting Iran to the "contact group" concerned with Syria would mean legitimizing its role inside Syria, with all what this involves in terms of its military and political alliance with the regime. In addition, Iran would be effectively rewarded for the role it has played in supporting the regime and for the one it seeks to play in preventing Assad from stepping down or his regime from collapsing. Vladimir Putin is keen for Iran to be at the core of shaping the new regional order, so that it may provide him with support in confronting both NATO and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Because he views Syria as the main arena for him to impose his influence and his might, Putin considers his interests to require the introduction of Iran as a member of the "Security Council extraordinaire" set up by Kofi Annan, through the "contact group" in charge of the issue of Syria.

Putin's Russia is walking two tight ropes: one directed towards reaching an understanding with the members of NATO over Syria and the new regional order, even if this were to lead to partially giving up on Iran and its regional ambitions; and the other towards obstinacy in confronting both NATO and the GCC, which would include confronting Turkey, a member of NATO that is currently coordinating its stances with the GCC. Russia's leadership knows full well that the track of arranging and preparing for a military settlement is moving forward in parallel with Moscow continuing to provide the regime in Damascus with military supplies under the pretext of implementing old contracts.

The incident of the Turkish jet that was downed in regional waters has opened the eyes of many to the possibility of Russia, and not Syria, downing the plane as a challenge to both Turkey and NATO in anticipation and in warning, and also as intimidation on the eve of entering into compromises and trade-offs. The current phase of overlapping negotiations and confrontation is a very delicate and sensitive one, due to continued doubt and lack of trust. So far, there is greater hope in a tangible start to the political track, on the basis of strong indications in this direction.

Yet nothing is guaranteed until it actually happens. This is why the race continues between the two tracks, the political and the military ones, in shaping the future of Syria.