Russia has endorsed a detailed United Nations road map for a political transition in Syria, a sign that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost the support of a key ally, according to three United Nations diplomats.
Persuading Assad to step aside and forming a transitional government to pave the way for elections will be at the core of a June 30 conference of top diplomats organized by Kofi Annan, the UN’s special envoy on Syria, the officials said. All three asked not to be identified because the talks are private.
The foreign ministers of the five permanent UN Security Council members -- China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. -- as well as Turkey, Qatar and Iraq will attend the meeting in Geneva.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday called the conference a potential “turning point” in the conflict that already has claimed more than 10,000 lives.
Annan earlier this week gave the parties to the talks a few days to respond to a set of recommendations entitled “On Guidelines and Principles of a Syrian-led transition.” By late on June 26, the Russians had accepted the paper in full, including language that spells out Assad’s departure, according to the three officials, who all were informed of the decision.
The Annan document, which was reviewed by Bloomberg News, says a transitional government may include members of Assad’s government and opposition and other groups, although not “those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”
According to a U.S. official, who was briefed on Annan’s plan, representatives of both the regime and the opposition could veto proposed members of a national unity government. He asked not to be identified in order to discuss the negotiations.
The latest effort to end the 16-month battle between the Alawite-dominated Assad regime and a largely Sunni Muslim uprising comes as Assad said his country is in a state of war. It also follows the Syrian downing of a Turkish military jet and an attack yesterday on Syria’s pro-government television station that killed seven journalists.
Russia has realized that Assad is losing the battle to preserve his grip on power, the UN officials said, and now the government of President Vladimir Putin is seeking a leading role in paving a smooth exit for a longtime Soviet and Russian client and arms customer.
“When Assad went into total war footing, he lost the Russians,” said George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator who’s now at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
The Obama administration rejected Russia’s and Annan’s attempt to include Iran in the Geneva talks, and Russia in turn insisted that Saudi Arabia be excluded because the Sunni kingdom has funneled support to the Syrian opposition.
“If other countries don’t want the benefits of Iran’s cooperation, it is up to them,” Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee told reporters in New York yesterday.
Aware of Putin’s sensitivity on the question of regime change in Syria, the U.S. accepted Russia’s demand that some Assad loyalists must be part of an interim government, according to two of the UN diplomats.
The UN officials also said that all the parties to the talks, as well as other nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are in rare agreement that action is needed to prevent radical Sunni Islamists from filling a power vacuum in Syria.
“We have made it clear to the Russians that the outcome they are most concerned about, which would be a sectarian civil war, is made more likely, not less likely, by the international community’s failure to take a strong position vis-a-vis the Assad regime,” Clinton said yesterday in Helsinki.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a former UN ambassador, will outline his country’s position in a news conference today in Moscow.
Absent some transition, said three other U.S. officials also involved in Syria policy, there’s a growing danger that Assad could lose his limited control of the Syrian security services and Alawite militias.
That could trigger even greater atrocities and an all-out civil war that could destabilize neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, they said. The three officials also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential diplomatic negotiations and intelligence reports.
The shift by Russia, which until now has shielded Assad with UN Security Council vetoes, could be the beginning of the end to a lengthy stalemate over how to halt the escalating violence. In February, Russia resisted Annan’s first effort to map a transition.
Even with the apparent international agreement, ushering Assad out and a transitional government in will be difficult, if it’s possible at all, the U.S. and UN officials acknowledged.
Among the difficulties, the U.S. officials said, will be bringing the warring Syrian parties together to reach an agreement on a transitional government; defining who would control Syria’s military, intelligence and security services; neutralizing the Alawite militias and the armed opposition; and providing multinational aid to encourage a transition toward elections.
The Syria action group should “agree on guidelines and principles for a Syrian-led political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people; and agree on actions that will make these objectives a reality on the ground,” Annan said in a statement distributed by e-mail.
Participating in yet another round of “dialogue for dialogue’s sake” has little value unless it makes clear what a “Syrian-led transition” entails: namely, that Assad goes, and sooner rather than later, said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an e-mail.
Annan has developed “his own very concrete road map for political transition,” Clinton told reporters in Helsinki. “If we can meet on the basis of that road map, with everyone agreeing before we arrive in Geneva that this will be the document we are endorsing by our presence, then I think this meeting makes a lot of sense.”
With Syria’s future is at stake, the most conspicuous absence in Geneva will be that of Syria itself.
“It is unfortunate,” Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters. “I think the most difficult problem Kofi Annan encountered in his work, and this is the fact that so far he’s not been successful in moving the opposition to dialogue, to forming a platform for dialogue, and sort of expressing their views politically on the situation there.”
“It’s their country, they need to figure out how they want to proceed with their country,” Churkin said. “Our role is to create conditions.”
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