Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Russia and Syria at a crossroads

Russia's flag (via Wikipedia)

With top Kremlin aide Mikhail Margelov now saying Russia can do little more for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and with the Arab League tabling a “game changer” plan for Assad’s peaceable exit, two political analysts suggest in today’s Arab press the Syria crisis cards have been randomized.

Abdelbari Atwan, publisher/editor of the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, believes “the noose has tightened around Assad’s neck.”

But in her daily column for Beirut’s an-Nahar, Rosanna Boumounsef says it’s Russia’s stance ultimately that will prove “pivotal in determining the regime’s fate.”

In the words of Abdelbari Atwan:

President Assad stands almost alone in the face of an Arab League where his country lost its clout, its decision-making sway and its seat. Above all, the Gulf heavyweights alongside whom his father fought to evict Iraq from Kuwait now want him out. They had earlier turned their back on Saddam Hussein after his role in defeating Iran and shielding their regimes drew to a close.

In saying Assad stands alone, I also refer to the latest Arab League vote on its Syria plan. Algeria abstained, and so did Iraq. Lebanon was the only state choosing to “shun” the ballot altogether.

The Russians, who supported Assad to the hilt in recent months, sending a naval task force to Tartus and blocking a Syria resolution at the UN Security Council, seem to be opening the door to a shift in their position. They sufficed so far to leak remarks by President Dmitry Medvedev's protégé Mikhail Margelov saying, “we can do no more” for Assad. The shift can be justified by the similitude between the new Arab plan and the three-month-old Russian proposals encouraging Assad to hand over power to his deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa, form a national unity government to oversee parliamentary and presidential elections and initiate serious political reform.

Syria’s rejection of the Arab League roadmap mirrors Ali Abdullah Saleh’s initial rejection of the GCC’s Yemen initiative. Saleh ended endorsing it and enplaning for Oman on his way to the United States. I can envisage a replay of the Yemen scenario in Syria… and maybe later in Algeria.

An added thorn in Assad’s flesh is Saudi Arabia deciding to take charge of the Syria file. The Saudi role to bring down Assad may be decisive. The massively oil-rich kingdom has a strong following in Lebanon and Syria, is the Islamic world’s powerhouse and America’s closest regional ally.

In the opinion of Rosanna Boumounsef:

The Russians used the “Yemen scenario” expression in recent months and appeared ready to embrace it to help find a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. Hence their 2011 invitation to Syrian Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa to visit Moscow for talks. The visit did not take place, purportedly because the Syrian command prevented it.

The question at this point is if Russia, which has long favored the Arab League route to a solution in Syria over the Security Council’s, would eat from the new Arab League meal cooked in Cairo.

Russia’s decision is crucial for two reasons. One, it would break with Arab majority ranks if it shied away from the Arab League platter. Two, it would deal the Syrian command a body blow and restrict its room for maneuver to a hair’s breadth if it gobbled it down.

Russia’s comportment at the UN Security Council once the Arab League presents its Syria plan for endorsement is eagerly anticipated.