As Syria slides toward civil war, Russia is signaling that it no longer views President Bashar al- Assad’s position as tenable and is working with the U.S. to seek an orderly transition.
A U.S. delegation headed by Fred Hof, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special adviser on Syria, is scheduled to meet with Russian counterparts June 8 in Moscow. They will try to forge a common approach to moving Assad aside -- or even out of the country -- with a goal of replacing him with someone acceptable to both sides in the conflict, according to two U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Under newly elected President Vladimir Putin, an evolution from support for Russia’s main Mideast ally could break a diplomatic deadlock. Russia’s threatened veto in the United Nation’s Security Council has hobbled 15 months of international efforts to pressure the Assad government with sanctions and other measures as the conflict deteriorated from peaceful protests into an armed conflict with sectarian undercurrents.
“In Moscow, they understand now that there is no chance of maintaining the status quo, they are looking at the question of a change of regime,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst with the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. “The only thing that Russia can do is to try and keep some influence in Syria. A managed change of regime is the only option now.”
While Russia for the first time sees a change of government in Syria as possible via a series of steps, it remains adamant that the outcome not be imposed from outside, according to a Russian official not authorized to speak publicly on this matter.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said yesterday that his country has never insisted on Assad staying in power and a decision on his future must be taken by the Syrians themselves, state-run Rossiya 24 television said on its website.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia and China are seeking to press the Syrian opposition to support peace efforts by UN envoy Kofi Annan and proposed a meeting of countries that have influence over the rebels.
“The goal of such a meeting, bringing together all foreign players at the first stage without the Syrians, is to agree honestly and without double standards to implement Kofi Annan’s plan, because we all supported it,” Lavrov told reporters in Beijing today after a meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Putin.
Russia, which has a naval resupply base in the Syrian port Tartus, is seeking to keep its influence in the country post- Assad, a scenario that Putin may be factoring into his calculations at the start of a six-year term.
Russia, which accuses Syrian armed opposition groups of sabotaging Annan’s almost two-month-old peace plan, yesterday condemned “amoral” foreign support for the rebels, who are receiving weapons and financing, according to a statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website.
Syria says Saudi Arabia and Qatar are torpedoing the UN plan to end the conflict by continuing to arm rebels in violation of a cease-fire agreement reached in April.
At the UN, Russia cast its opposition to Syria sanctions as justified to avoid repeating the kind of intervention undertaken by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies that helped topple Libya dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
“Russia is realizing that with the rise of the death toll its ‘principled’ position may be hard to sell for much longer,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight. “More importantly, it may cause serious damage to Russia’s relations with large parts of the Arab world.”
“Any visible U-turn in Russia’s position is possible only if Moscow is convinced that the West will not sideline it, as in the Libyan crisis, and that Russia will have a full participation in Syrian crisis resolution,” Gevorgyan said in an e-mail.
After meeting with French President Francois Hollande, among the most adamant of Western leaders demanding Assad’s departure, Putin said Russia was not invested in Assad staying.
“We aren’t for Assad or for his opponents,” Putin told reporters in Paris on June 1. “We want to achieve a situation in which violence ends and a full-scale civil war is avoided.”
This week’s preliminary round of discussions in Moscow on a post-Assad scenario will lay the groundwork ahead of a meeting between President Barack Obama and Putin at the Group of 20 Summit June 18-19 in Los Cabos, Mexico.
As long as Russia and the U.S. can’t agree on a common approach, the impasse will continue, according to a Russian government official not authorized to speak publicly on this matter. Everyone is waiting for the two leaders to find a common stance, the official said.
Even with a U.S.-Russia understanding, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a Syrian leader that Putin and the opposition would find acceptable, according to three UN officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private.
Moreover, the opposition -- more divided now than at the start of the uprising -- is unlikely to produce a candidate that a spectrum of interests, including the Persian Gulf nations that are its supporters, can rally around, the officials said.
The situation in Syria has deteriorated to such an extent that it now may be beyond anyone’s control, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The increasingly violent struggle, pitting a Sunni-led uprising against Assad’s Alawite minority, has also been infiltrated by foreign jihadists exploiting the unrest.
The Russian move away from Assad follows the conflict’s worst atrocity in which more than 100 Syrians, mostly women and children, were murdered in the Houla region. The UN blamed Assad’s forces for the massacre.
The killings were the starkest evidence yet that the UN- brokered cease-fire agreement, which Russia had thrown its full weight behind, is failing. Assad has disregarded pledges to withdraw his forces and move toward a political resolution.
Russia had been hostile to rhetoric that even hinted at a departure of Assad, denouncing it as calls for regime change. It vetoed a resolution alluding to a transition of power.
A Yemeni-style political transition in Syria has been touted as a model by Lavrov, who has said it would be possible only after an agreement among all parties in the country. Still, Syria is not Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh was persuaded to delegate power to a deputy and received full immunity in exchange.
As much as Russia would like that kind of managed transition, the circumstances aren’t there for Syria, where a Lebanon-style power-sharing model may be required, according to Lukyanov.
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