Russia has taken more decisive measures to end the Syrian crisis in recent days calling on the Syrian government to open a dialogue with the opposition. But Moscow admits that the peaceful transition, although being the best solution, is increasingly unattainable.
IHS Global Insight perspective
Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad yesterday (28 December) to start the long-pledged dialogue with the Syrian opposition in line with the agreements reached in Geneva (Switzerland) on 30 June. Conversely, the Russian government has also extended an invitation to the Syrian opposition National Coalition head, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, in an effort to reach a breakthrough in the 21-month-long crisis.
Russia remains a key powerbroker in the Syrian crisis, mainly due to its implicit support for Assad's government while also opposing Western efforts to induce government change by backing the opposition.
Moscow's reinvigorated efforts are unlikely to achieve significant progress unless the resolution plan is backed by the US. The new drive to push Assad for dialogue and also cultivate further relations with the Syrian opposition is to help Russia to recalibrate its stance on Syria by reflecting the changes on the battleground and admitting that the conflict is far too advanced to save the current government.
The situation in Damascus, Syria, on 27 December 2012.
Preventing a "bloody chaos"
Yesterday (27 December), Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned that if the peace initiative by the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi fails to solve the 21-month-long Syrian crisis, this may lead to a "bloody chaos" in the country torn by civil war. He added that the longer the conflict continues, "the greater its scale – and the worse things get for all". Russia firmly backs peaceful compromise as the only viable solution to the conflict. Since the start of the crisis triggered by the Arab Spring revolution inspired anti-government protests, Russia has maintained that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could be replaced only through lawful measures and without outside interference. These principles were included in the Geneva agreement concluded on 30 June 2012. The deal called on President Assad to open dialogue with the opposition forces, but the document refrained from spelling out the international mediators' position on Assad's future. While Russia has been clinging on to the implementation of the Geneva agreement that failed to take off, the situation on the ground has changed. After claiming 45,000 lives, the conflict does not show any signs of abating. Moreover, with the West recognising the Syrian opposition National Council as a lawful government, even Russia was forced to accept that President Assad was losing control over parts of his territory to the opposition army.
However, Russia remains at odds with the West over the solution to the Syrian crisis. The main point of contention is the issue of international interference, which Russia vehemently opposes, including the arming of the Syrian opposition. Hence it came as no surprise that the Russian foreign minister harshly criticised the Western decision to recognise the Syrian National Council as a lawful body and call on Assad to step down immediately. Speaking to the Russian Interfax news agency, Lavrov instead called on the United States and other international powerbrokers to redouble their efforts to bring a peaceful solution.
In view of changes on the battleground in Syria, Russia is not very optimistic about a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Lavrov admitted in his interview with Russian media outlets that "considering what is happening in Syria, the chances for such a solution based on the Geneva communiqué... are diminishing, but they still exist, and we must fight for them".
For its part, Russia has already held talks with Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad. The official explanation for Muqdad's visit was to continue bilateral consultations on the Russian efforts to resolve the conflict. However, the Syrian deputy foreign minister's trip was more likely a result of alarming messages for Assad's government coming from Russia in recent weeks. Firstly, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov for the first time publicly stated in mid-December that Assad was losing control of some regions to the opposition army. The Kremlin, however, was quick to clarify that Bogdanov's statement was in no way indicative of Russia's changing position. Secondly, shortly before Muqdad's visit, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson denied that Russia had agreed to a joint initiative with the US that would see Assad stay in power until 2014 with no right to renew his mandate.
As before, Russia sees its role as being a mediator in peace talks between the opposition and Assad's government. However, it has yet to push Assad to open direct talks with the opposition. Also, Russia has been slow in developing relations with the opposition National Council, partially due to the fear of lending credibility or recognition to this disparate body uniting anti-Assad forces, and also partially because the Council for some months had been unable to present a unified front. Still, Bogdanov has confirmed this week that the National Coalition head Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib was invited for talks that could either take place in Moscow or at other location, such as Geneva (Switzerland) or Cairo (Egypt).
Outlook and implications
The recent statements by the Russian government are efforts to recalibrate Russia's approach to the Syrian conflict. The failure to find a common voice with the West on the issue has resulted in the conflict turning into a civil war, where the opposition has clear backing from the West and most of the Sunni Arab states. Since then, Russia's ability to manoeuvre has been limited. It has not been able to openly back down from supporting Assad and embrace the opposition without a face-saving operation. At the same time, however, Russia is gradually accepting that the chances of bringing Syria back to the pre-crisis normality of 21 months ago are irrevocably gone. Hence the Russian Foreign Ministry's willingness to drop the previous repetitive statements of strong support for Assad's regime and admit changes on the ground, followed by reinvigorated steps to find a solution with the US and UN-Arab League envoy Brahimi due in Moscow later this week.
What has not changed and is unlikely to change in terms of Russia's Syrian policy, however, is Russia's conviction that the new Syrian government should be the result of a peaceful compromise between the warring parties, potentially including representatives from the whole political spectrum, including the current government. Russia has clearly stated that it is not insisting on Assad remaining in power, but at the same time it will refrain from urging the president to resign, or worse, offering him asylum. Russia is likely to insist on a non-intervention principle; however, considering how advanced the conflict is at this stage, this is an unrealistic call.
From the start of the Syrian crisis, the disagreements between the international powerbrokers had a particular negative impact on the conflict. The fact that both Russia and particularly the US were more inward looking throughout 2012 due to the presidential elections in these countries had a further negative impact. Hence a common stance shared by Russia and the US will be paramount in ending the civil war in Syria, which after all does need that diplomatic foreign intervention.