Amid extremely charged atmosphere caused by the most recent developments in the Syrian crisis, Russia has told mediator Kofi Annan that it would support the idea of a Syrian national unity government.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and key players in the Middle East will discuss in Geneva on Saturday Kofi Annan’s proposal for a political transition in Syria. Details of the political transition and the mechanisms for implementing it will be thoroughly discussed by the American Secretary of States and her Russian counterpart in the Geneva meeting on Saturday.
While the new Russian support given to Kofi Annan constitutes a very important step, the crisis is far still from being resolved. At the heart of the problem is the issue of President Bashar Assad himself. Western powers including the United States insist that Assad is guilty of massacring his people. It is estimated that more than 13,000 Syrians have been killed in the 16-month-old uprising. Therefore, the key question is whether the Western powers agree to any political transition that does not force Assad to step down and leave the political scene.
So far, the Russian stand has not changed. Assad must remain in power but not at all costs. The Russian leadership argues that the decision on whether or not President Assad should step down is up to the Syrian people. Any outside pressure or military intervention as happened in Libya to force Assad to step down will be opposed by Russia. Put differently, the removal of Assad is to be the result of a political transition rather than a condition.
And yet one needs to pay attention to Putin’s dilemma to understand the Russian maneuver. First, he understands that it is in his best interest to work on the Syrian problem with the Obama administration rather than with a possible Republican administration.
The Republican nominee Mitt Romney has already painted Russia as a geo-strategic enemy. Time and again, Mitt Romney accused Obama of lacking leadership on the issue of Syria. Second, Putin’s grip on power is eroding following his election as a president a couple of months ago. Additionally, the Russia economy is stumbling. Given that, a few in the Middle East would take Putin seriously.
In Geneva, Russia is in a weaker position than it used to be just a few months ago. Apparently, Kofi Annan realizes this fact. He seeks to exploit the Russian position and therefore his strategy is wholly centered on the Russia to weaken Assad at home and to push him to cooperate with Annan’s plan for political transition.
Not surprisingly, Russia failed to secure Iran’s participation in the upcoming Geneva meeting. Previously, Russia had refused to take part in the meeting unless Iran was allowed in. the Russia retreat from an earlier position marked a victory for the Western powers who had said that they would not sit in a meeting with Iran.
Not only Russia suffers from a weakening position, but also Assad is in an unenviable position. In the wake of shooting down a Turkish fighter, Assad has been cornered. On the one hand, the rebels are battling his forces in Damascus inflicting losses on the pro-regime forces and facilities. On the other hand, Ankara is more prone to show teeth in dealing with Assad.
The Syrian regime propaganda and the media campaign seem to lose the battle over the minds and hearts of the Arabs. Only a few days ago, the elected Egyptian president snubbed Assad for congratulating him on his electoral victory. The Egyptian president said that Assad had no legitimacy whatsoever.
While many observers remain skeptical of the Geneva meeting, one thing is clear. Any agreement reached on Saturday’s meeting in Geneva will send a clear message to Assad that the noose is tightening around his neck. Iran is expected to help him but this is easier said than done.
The departure of Assad is set in stone whether as a result of a political transition or the continuation of violence and counter-violence. Many observers underestimate Annan’s ability to influence events, but his ability to organize the Geneva meeting and to impress on others his own idea are impressive. His road map for change in Syria may prove to be better than a chaotic civil war that benefits no one.
Hassan A. Barari, is a political scientist specializing in the Middle East. Published in the Saudi-based Arab News on June 29, 2012