The presidents of Russia and China, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao, have both backed Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria, and the Russian Foreign Ministry has expressed concern over the Syrian opposition’s announcement that it was withdrawing from the plan. That is the model of Russian diplomacy in place since last spring and, for the time being, Moscow is not going to depart from it.
In effect, it was Russia that made the Annan plan possible. It was the persistence of the Russian Foreign Ministry that compelled other players to give up the idea that the Syrian crisis could only be resolved if Bashar al-Assad were removed from power.
Between January and April, Moscow proved that it can resist powerful psychological pressure and that it is an important and skillful player in global politics. It brought the world back to the tradition of diplomatic settlement instead of regime change by force.
However, it was clear from the start that Russia has limited capabilities. Annan’s plan could have succeeded had it been put on the table six months earlier. By the spring of 2012, the conflict had already gone too far. The destructive interference of outside forces, mostly on the side of the Syrian opposition, had also reached a critical point. There are too many players intent on sabotaging peaceful efforts – from Assad’s opponents, who will settle for nothing less than his overthrow, to people from his entourage who still believe that one more push and victory is theirs.
In general, the ineffectiveness and ossification of the Syrian government has been the main catalyst of the Syrian tragedy. All attempts to reform – even the half-hearted ones – came too late, sometimes making things worse. Indeed, what was the point of adopting a new constitution through a referendum when nobody believed the process was legitimate?
Unfortunately for the Syrian leadership, the support it receives from a considerable part of the population does not change anything. For starters, the opposition is also strong, has the support of outside allies and enjoys trust in the world. Second, the fate of Assad’s “colleagues” in other countries of the region has made it perfectly clear that when tensions reach a critical point, the dictator is deserted. The majority of those who considered him the lesser of two evils are not prepared to risk anything for him.
In political terms, it is not terribly important who was behind the tragedy in Houla, where dozens of civilians, including children, were killed, leading to a new outburst of violence. Even if it were a provocation by the regime’s opponents, the government will be criticized because it is responsible for stability and security in the country by definition, and failure to perform this core function undermines its legitimacy.
Russia faces a difficult choice. Annan’s plan is on the brink of failure. If it falls through, there will be no point in talking about dialogue or peaceful resolution. There will be no convincing arguments in support of this path. True, there is no real alternative, either.
Russia will never agree to the repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria. Hillary Clinton’s hints that action could be taken without a UN Security Council mandate is most likely a bluff. The only realistic scenario is to pump the opposition full of money and weapons in the hope that it will become strong enough to win on its own. In other words, the alternative is escalation of the civil war, and this requires that the Syrian National Council be recognized as the country’s legal government. This was done in Libya several weeks after the start of the uprising to create a quasi-legal foundation to supporting Gaddafi’s opponents. Some Arab countries and France, for one, could do this again in Syria.
To expand on the success it achieved in the Middle East in the first months of this year, Russia should offer an effective plan for change of power in Syria. This plan should lay out a vision for gradual change as an alternative to Assad’s overthrow, which would plunge Syria into chaos.
Syria needs a new model of government, and calls for free elections to put everything right won’t do. Guarantees will be required not only for Assad and his closest entourage (this is easier to achieve – they only have to agree and that’s it) but also to Syria’s social and ethnic groups, which are afraid of being harassed by a ruling Sunni majority. This applies not only to the ruling Alawis, but also to Christians and others who benefited under the old system.
The international community should elaborate a system of governance in Syria that should probably be as nuanced and complex as the one Lebanon had in the best times. The Bosnian experience can also be used to some degree. Today, many criticize the Dayton agreement, but at least it put an end to the mass bloodshed and ensured peace, albeit without solving the country’s long-term problems.
Assad’s consent to step down is an indispensable condition. Many mention the Yemeni model in this context. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure was brokered by Saudi Arabia and the United States, while in this case their role could be played by Iran and Russia, which should try to prevent an avalanche that would bury their interests in Syria. Only pressure from Syria’s closest partners can compel official Damascus to end the conflict. Otherwise, the Yemeni scenario will become impossible, and a combination of the chaotic Iraqi, Libyan and Lebanese scenarios will loom on the horizon.
Russia could make it clear to Assad that it has done all it can for him and he should not count on more. There are no guarantees that he will accept this outcome, but at least he will be fully responsible for the consequences.