Addressing the nation for the first time in over six months, Syrian President Bashar Assad thanked Russia for its efforts to help find a political solution to Syria’s conflict. This sounded ironic, because the rest of the speech was devoted to denying the very possibility of negotiating with those who should theoretically be the other party to the negotiations.
In the last days of 2012, Russia was again at the center of attention due to events in Syria. First, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Faysal Maklad, visited Moscow, followed by the special envoy of the UN and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, but the leader of the Syrian national coalition, Ahmed Muaz al-Hatib, made a point of rejecting the invitation from the Russian Foreign Ministry until Moscow publicly apologizes for supporting the Assad regime. And the news that the amphibious assault ship Novocherkassk had sailed from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk to the Syrian port of Tartus caused a wave of rumors, each one louder than the last, to erupt in media outlets sympathetic to the opposition. Rumors that an armada of Russian warships is supposedly heading to Syria, either to protect the “Alawite corridor” or remove Assad’s chemical weapons.
The latter, if true, should surely be welcomed, because it would be much safer for such weapons to be kept in Russia, but unfortunately, none of these speculations are based in reality. Of course, the Russian ships in the Mediterranean Sea are directly relevant to the Syrian conflict, but any involvement in military action is out of the question. The task is much more practical: if the crisis escalates significantly and the country is engulfed in civil war, the Russian citizens there will need urgent assistance. Central to the new Russian ideology that seems to be taking root during Vladimir Putin’s third term is the concept of protecting the country’s citizens, wherever they are located. Much is riding on the success of this policy, so the inability to evacuate promptly any Russians who wish to leave Syria would be a blow to the administration’s prestige. It is no coincidence that in 2011, when the civil war erupted in Libya, many Russian commentators pointed out to government officials that Beijing was able in a very short time to evacuate from the country 35,000 Chinese workers who were working on joint projects.
Somehow, the moderate optimism with which Lakhdar Brahimi left Moscow gave rise to hopes that some sort of plan to resolve the conflict had been worked out by the two main outside participants — the U.S. and Russia. No one will confirm the existence of such a plan officially or even privately, but it is not denied that there is new life in the process. What is in Moscow’s interest today?
Throughout 2012, Russia did not yield at all from its position on the Syrian issue, that the conflict must be resolved politically within the country, with no outside interference. Moscow endured sharp criticism, strong pressure, and bewildered questions about the reasonableness of its approach: why knowingly make a losing bet on a doomed dictator? At least three times, Russia was declared fatally intransigent, and others promised to resolve the problem without it, but then, after again reaching a stalemate on the battlefield, they turned to Moscow once more for help. It seems that the West and the Arab countries are only now beginning to understand that Russia is actually standing on principle and not simply pursuing its own mercantile interests. This means that the successful result of Russian diplomacy will not be keeping Bashar Assad in power, but ensuring a smooth transition of power without external intervention or internal collapse. And in general, it is not of fundamental importance who will lead Syria in the future. The previous, hugely profitable commercial relationships will no longer exist, but new relationships will surely be built, simply because certain things in the region still depend on Russia.
The overthrow of Bashar Assad will be a defeat for Russia. Both from the point of view of prestige and in the practical sense: all of Russia’s enormous diplomatic efforts will come to nothing, and Moscow will be seen as having bet on the wrong horse. Therefore, it is in Russia’s interests to support and advance the political process, in order to capitalize on its two years of intensive work.
The Russian diplomats working on resolving the Syrian conflict are more and more frequently heard to say the word “Dayton.” The Dayton Accord of 1995, which ended the war in Bosnia, has faced much criticism since that time, because it has not provided the basis for stable statehood in that country. It is unpopular in Russia, because it was signed during the period when Moscow’s influence in international affairs was at its low point. However, the model itself is being discussed now, because Bosnia is similar in some ways to Syria. A diverse, multicultural society with a harsh history, a fierce internecine conflict involving religious strife, active outside interference from both neighbors and great powers, and finally, one side considered by international public opinion to be “most at fault” (in Bosnia, it was the Serbs and Slobodan Milosevic). Of course, the parallels are not exact. The Syrian situation is more complex, but the arrangement worked out in the Balkans could be applied in the Middle East with appropriate modifications.
The most influential outside players, representing what might be called the various opposing groups, would use diplomacy and pressure to get them to the negotiating table, where they would not only formulate a transitional government, but develop a new system of government for Syria. On the one hand, this would distribute power among the various religious and ethnic communities in order to establish a balance of interests, primarily in the name of security. On the other hand, there would be a system of external guarantees, in which all of the involved countries would participate, even those that have antagonistic relations with each other. (In an interview with the author of this article, Sergey Lavrov confirmed back in November that Russia favors Egypt’s initiative, in the format of the “Four Neighbors” — Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran — as an important tool in resolving the Syrian conflict.) The most important aspect of this is the participation of all actors that affect the situation, and in this sense the achievement of Dayton was that Slobodan Milosevic was included in the negotiations even though he was already considered a war criminal in the West.
One approach has been and will be firmly rejected by Moscow: the assertion that Assad’s resignation is the solution to the Syrian crisis. Catherine Ashton, the EU representative for foreign policy, said this again after the Syrian president’s speech. On all other matters, Russia could certainly be flexible regarding the parameters and format of a hypothetical Syrian “Dayton.” Of course, the “peace conference” proposed by Bashar Assad implies something very different, sweeping aside the opposition that is using primarily military operations against him. But even this idea might have some merit, if Damascus actually carries it out. Such a forum would crystallize the forces within that are trying to avoid the destruction of the entire system. If the regime is willing to compromise with its moderate opponents within the country, this could create a “party” for future negotiations. With support that would be hard to deny, this party would be capable of holding talks with the implacable opposition from the National Coalition, which is also more consolidated now than in the past.
This is all still speculation, but the deadlock of violence in which Syria is currently trapped forces everyone to look for difficult ways out. And this cannot be done without Russia.