Out of tricks

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet on December 21, 2012 with the EU president, foreign policy chief and their delegation before the start of the 30th EU-Russia summit at EU headquarters in Brussels. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS)

Russian officials these days are marketing a new phrase when they talk about the crisis in Syria: dialogue in order to reach a political solution.

Admittedly, they have used such language in the past, but the phrase was usually overshadowed by other, more significant ones, such as: “outside powers” and “funding terrorist groups.”

Moscow seems to have gradually come around to the notion there is a home-grown domestic rebellion taking place in the land of its long-time ally, and the hypocrisy of Russian rhetoric is there for everyone to see.

After more than 20 months of expressing skepticism about the reasons for the violence that has devastated Syria, Russian officials are now issuing solemn statements about the need to sit down and talk. They have been resolute in their support for Syrian President Bashar Assad since the uprising began in March 2011, and offered him and his regime every type of moral backing and physical assistance – in the form of weapons, money and other items.

This policy was an example of stalling tactics, pure and simple. After Russian officials spent their time closely following developments on the ground, it now appears they have concluded that nothing further can be gained by buying time for the Assad regime. They had earlier hoped that the tide would turn in favor of the Syrian authorities, but are now facing a crossroads. The casualties and destruction are only mounting, and the regime is in a purely defensive mode, unable to re-capture territory that it has ceded to the rebels, or lost in bloody battles. Recent statements by President Vladimir Putin, and Mikhail Bogdanov, the Kremlin’s man for the Middle East, only confirm that the Russians believe that time is no longer on the side of Assad, or of Russia.

But while many are interpreting the new Russian stance as a case of realism, the contrary is the case.

If Moscow were truly taking all aspects of the conflict into consideration, it wouldn’t throw its weight behind a move toward dialogue, and negotiations on a supposed agreement to see Assad remain in power as a transitional government is formed. Instead, Moscow would do the smart thing, and back a departure, as soon as possible, for Assad and his top aides.

As expected, the National Coalition opposition in exile staunchly rejects any attempt to arrive at a negotiated settlement that would see Assad remain in Syria in any capacity. And even if world powers could somehow manage to pressure the Coalition into accepting such proposals, the move would be roundly denounced by the Syrian activists, demonstrators and rebels who have been able to achieve what many thought impossible – keeping the regime on the ropes. The opposition earlier rejected such compromises when it scarcely controlled any territory inside the country. Today, opposition politicians and the rebels have a much stronger hand to play, but not even that will allow them to go against the wishes of the Syrian people, who are demanding that the regime be punished, not rewarded with a last-minute political solution.

Thus, Russia has moved from a belief that whatever the problems in Syria, Assad and his team would emerge victorious, to sensing it is time to cut the Kremlin’s political losses. The Russians believe they can gain through diplomacy what they were unable to gain through military operations they wholeheartedly supported.

If they are serious about the desire to arrive at a solution and avoid the “bloody chaos” about which Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has issued dire warnings, there is only one option. Work must begin today on getting Assad and his people to give up power, and leave Syria.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 28, 2012, on page 7.




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