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Moscow and the West Once Again Cross Swords Over Syria

Next Thursday (February 2), the UN Security Council will vote on a new West- and LAS-sponsored draft resolution on Syria urging President Bashar al-Assad to resign and delegate his powers to Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa.

Next Thursday (February 2), the UN Security Council will vote on a new West- and LAS-sponsored draft resolution on Syria urging President Bashar al-Assad to resign and delegate his powers to Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa.

Moscow has called for a compromise. But if the sides fail to find common ground, Russia may veto the resolution. If this happens, President Assad will be given another chance to conduct talks with the opposition, while the West will again find itself in a dilemma as to whether to start a dialogue with or topple the “bloody dictator.”

Russia, in the meantime, has been making unsuccessful attempts at mediation, trying to bring the opposing sides to the negotiating table.

Syrian opposition rejects Russian mediation

The Russian Foreign Ministry has put forward a new peace initiative the other day, proposing that Moscow serve as the venue for a dialogue without preconditions between Damascus and the Syrian opposition.

The offer has been accepted by Damascus and turned down by the opposition, through the Syrian National Council (SNC). “We have not received any offer like that officially and I think, if such an offer exists, it will be no more than an attempt to influence the (UN) Security Council. But I say clearly that our position has not changed and it is that there is no dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad," Abdel Baset Seda, a member of the Syrian National Council’s executive committee, told Reuters.

This flat refusal can be easily explained.

First, neither the Syrian opposition, nor the West can accept Moscow as an arbiter. One might recall that last October Russia and China vetoed a European-tendered Security Council resolution that called for sanctions against Syria if it failed to cease violence within 30 days. Moscow’s position on Syria is completely clear. Above all it fears a repeat of the Libyan scenario, where NATO made use of a UN sanction in order to launch a military intervention against Libya – allegedly with the aim of protecting peaceful civilians – which culminated in the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi who was executed by rebels without investigation or trial.

Second, having been created by the U.S., France and the UK, the Syrian National Council is, a priori, unable to agree to any proposals advanced by Moscow. Headed by Barhan Ghalioun, an ethnic Syrian professor of political sociology at Sorbonne University in Paris, this organization is not intended for negotiations with Bashar al-Assad. Its goal is to fill the political vacuum left once the incumbent present resigns or is removed by force.

Meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow last November, Burhan Ghalioun insisted that Moscow should support the West, causing Assad to resign his post and leave Syria. Moscow rejected this agenda.

Belated compromises

The person to blame for the ongoing developments in Syria is primarily President Bashar al-Assad himself. Unlike his father, who knew how to exploit Soviet-U.S. differences with maximum effect, he is insensitive to political tidings and makes belated decisions.

His current democratic political initiatives – a new Constitution, a multi-party system, political freedoms, etc. – should have been advanced many years ago before the “Arab spring.”

As early as the year 2000, when he became president, he could have launched a “revolution from above” by beginning democratic reforms one step at a time. The West, whose support Assad wished to secure, would have reacted positively.

Instead, the young Syrian ruler tried to keep the administrative system intact that he had inherited from his father. The West went along with him for the time being. But in February 2005, an influential Lebanese opponent of the Syrian military presence, Rafic Hariri, died in a terrorist attack in Beirut.

The West accused the Syrian secret services of organizing the attack. These charges were not unfounded. Relations between Syria and the West began to deteriorate, and the “Arab spring” served as a catalyst in the current unrest.

The Yemeni scenario

Last week, the League of Arab States came up with a new plan inspired by the record of crisis settlement in another Arab country, Yemen. Among other things, the plan suggests that President Assad should leave his post to Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa who will form a national unity government under a political figure acceptable to all sides within two months. Democratic and transparent elections should be held in six months’ time, which will be monitored by Arab and Western observers.

It is this plan that formed the base of the new draft resolution on Syria, which the West and the League of Arab States submitted to the Security Council on Tuesday. President Assad turned down the “Yemeni scenario,” describing it as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty.

Syria in the light of geopolitics

From the geopolitical perspective, the current standoff in Syria has largely been a result of the intractable position of Russia in its dealings with the Western partners, primarily the United States, France, and the UK. And this is not surprising, as Russia's relations with the West have been slowly deteriorating over the last ten years. The reset has misfired. There is little to no mutual understanding on the main global issues, including missile defense and the Iranian nuclear program.

The Syrian situation is largely reminiscent of the Cold War between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.

What lies in store for Syria?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believes that the downfall of the Assad regime is imminent. She has called on Russia and China not to block the new draft resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying that Russia “will do its best to avert a heavy-handed interference in Syria.” Lavrov admitted, however, that “Russia cannot prevent a military intervention in Syrian affairs if this decision is made by some country.”

The League of Arab States supports the West and is prepared to use force. The plight of President Bashar al-Assad is none too good; his room for political maneuvering becomes narrower with each passing day. But the West is not yet ready to risk it all either. Of course, the West would like Burhan Ghalioun of the Syrian National Council to replace President Assad, but far from all Syrians approve of this choice. He can only make it to Damascus with NATO’s military help, but neither Europe, nor the U.S., is ready for military intervention. Meanwhile the flames of civil war are spreading to ever new areas in Syria.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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