March 21, 2012

More Russian Mind Games In Syria

Nearly five months have elapsed since Abu Dhabi hosted the first annual ministerial between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Billed as a stepping stone to greater integration with Gulf nations, the ministerial is already yielding mixed results amid the war between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. Beyond supporting Bahrain's monarchy in anonymity, Moscow would approve Yemen's GCC deal in the UN Security Council (UNSC) shortly before Abu Dhabi's November summit.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is also partly responsible for attempting to duplicate the U.S. brokered power-sharing agreement in Syria, proliferating the "Yemeni model" into the media sphere.

At least one parallel of the GCC deal remains on track in Syria - a long waiting period. Western and Gulf officials needed eight months to extract a signature from Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who viewed the deal as a last resort to preserving his authority. At one point Saleh's backtracking left Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani empty handed in Sana'a, forcing the infuriated GCC Secretary-General into an embarrassing retreat. A similar breakdown in Syria has added friction to Moscow's collaboration with the GCC; Russia's UNSC veto obstructed the Arab League's push for a Yemeni-inspired transition.

Led by Riyadh, the GCC has since suspended its embassy missions with Damascus and publicly toyed with the thought of arming Syrian revolutionaries.

Now Lavrov is attempting to shrink Syria's waiting period by returning to the "model" that he first promoted in November. Building of his previous critique of Bashar al-Assad's regime, the Minister told local radio station Kommersant-FM that, "the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appearance of peaceful protests and... is making very many mistakes. This, unfortunately, has in many ways led the conflict to reach such a severe stage." To this end Lavrov voiced his government's support for Kofi Annan's joint AL-UN proposal, which calls for a immediate ceasefire, humanitarian access, release of detainees, freedom of the press, freedom to protest peacefully and an "inclusive Syrian-led political dialogue."

Beneath this half-smile lurks a host of shadows. Rather than pressure al-Assad, Lavrov's has kept Moscow's weight behind the strongman by echoing his own "acceptance" of Annan's plan. Both continue to demand conditional "guarantees" to unconditional talks - starting with the disarming of Syria's rebels - a stalling tactic employed by none other than Ali Saleh. Lavrov is lobbying for a deal that he advocated nearly five months ago, minus the original clause to transfer executive power to a vice president. He now rejects calls for al-Assad's resignation as "unrealistic," while SANA state media reported the UNSC's statement as an affirmation of Syria's sovereignty.

Unfortunately for Syria's revolutionaries, Western and Gulf capitals are temporarily compromising to avoid what is perceived as a costlier and deadlier repeat of Libya's intervention. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indirectly addressed al-Assad on Wednesday, telling reporters, "we say, along with the international community: Take this path, commit to it, or face increasing pressure and isolation." Her spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, later explained, "since the Secretary had a chance to talk to Foreign Minister Lavrov in New York, that we felt that our positions were converging with regard to what needs to be done in Syria, and that we were hopeful that Kofi Annan could play a productive role in bringing the council together."

Washington's ultimate message: "do the right thing." Since when has that happened in the last year?

Moscow's policy may pay a future price for Lavrov's rhetoric, and a government can only walk back so far before it hits a wall. As for the other side of that wall, Western and Gulf powers are forced to take what they can get from Russia and China. This process is similar to mountain climbing: improving the international position through a series of elevating base camps until the summit is reached. However the Arab League's proposal stands a high chance of generating new instability. Despite expressing their desire to end their revolution as soon as possible, most parties within the Syrian opposition rejected Annan's conditions when he arrived in Damascus - a move that drew Lavrov's ire. They have no interest in negotiating with al-Assad's regime or giving up their weapons before his exit. Syrians have launched a revolution, not the "political crisis" that the UN keeps referring to (as it does in Yemen), and they intend to finish their mission.

Political leaders and regular activists only need to look south to glimpse a vision of the Arab League's proposal. Although open civil war had been temporarily averted in Yemen, people continue to die in the south's twisting conflicts involving the Southern Movement and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Saleh remains in the country and is actively subverting the transitional government in preparation for a future re-takeover. Negligible dialogue has taken place between the new government, various political movements and the popular revolutionaries. The unstable arrangement is predictably absurd and conducive to indefinite hostilities, a price that Washington and the GCC are willing to pay in order to maintain influence.

This is the reality of the Arab League's mirage in Syria, and Western capitals are too knowledgeable to plead ignorance.

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