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Russia Tries to Change Narrative On Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

“Going forward” This is the phrase that the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have both used in connection with the Syrian conflict now well into its seventh year.

In his 126-minutes long meeting with Donald Trump in Hamburg last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Washington and Moscow “work together” to arrive at a common analysis of the Syrian crisis and the ways to end it.

But what does moving forward mean?

The first step, according to Lavrov, is the installation and consolidation of a ceasefire in a portion of southern Syria. However, such a scheme can hardly be regarded as “moving forward” if only because in the past two years more than 30 local ceasefires have been negotiated and, at times, broken, in various parts of the war-torn country. The core of the Syrian problem is a stalemate at political level, not the reconfiguration of local battlefields.

“The Trump-Putin meeting set up a robust and comprehensive framework for cooperation on Syria and solving other regional issues,” says Maria Dubovskova who heads the Middle East Studies Club in Moscow.

“But this requires regional cooperation and coordination from concerned parties, Turkey and Saudi Arabia particularly.”

Interestingly, she makes no mention of Iran, which implies that the “framework” offered by Putin to Trump was a quiet marginalization of the Islamic Republic, something that is supposed to make the Americans rise to the bait.

The reference to “other regional issues” is also interesting because it is designed to banalize the Syrian conflict as one of while claiming a role for Russia in other fields where she is not part of the game.

“Putin is trying to put the whole issue on a different trajectory,” says Tim Connell a researcher on Mideast for several oil companies.

“He wants to narrow down the whole thing to one of local ceasefires and, perhaps later, the creation of the so-called ‘de-escalation’ zones. The French call this the tactic of drowning the fish.”

All this means that the root-cause of the conflict, the rejection of the Assad dictatorship by a significant, if not an overwhelming majority of Syrians, is pushed aside.

In that connection, Moscow is harping on two themes. The first is that the major powers should prevent a systemic collapse that would turn Syria into another failed state in a non-governed territory.

However, that is precisely what has already happened. President Bashar al-Assad’s administration has ceased to exist as a functioning government. The recent 5-hour long incursion by Assad into Homs and Hama with an equally brief sortie in Lattakia had the opposite effect by highlighting the limits of his presence.

In any case, none of the major opposition groups and powers involved in Syria seeks the destruction of the country’s bureaucracy and armed forces. All they demand is that a small clique which has usurped power for decades be pushed aside to make way for a transition towards a truly representative government.

In fact, a scheme, secretly negotiated through track-2 diplomacy in 2013 envisaged the installation of a transition government under one of Assad’s vice presidents in the context of a broader strategy aimed at forging a new constriction and electing a new government.

Variations on the same scheme provided the backbone of efforts by three successive UN special representatives and the framework for the so-called Geneva Accords. The scheme had a slim chance of success at a time that Russia had not become heavily involved while a good chunk of Assad’s entourage were ready to make deals in exchange for retaining a share of power.

According to a senior Lebanese politician involved in the Track-2 talks, the scheme hit a wall when President Barak Obama, for reasons still unknown, sidelined his own top advisers and declared his notorious “ Assad must go!” slogan accompanied by his equally curious “red lines”.

In other words a credible framework that would prevent systemic collapse in Syria already exists.

Rather than “moving forward” away from it, perhaps we need to move backwards to revive it.

Lavrorv’s claim that the “Assad must go” demand is the chief cause of the deadly impasse is disingenuous to say the least.

The claim has been echoed by France’s new President Emmanuel Macron who seems to have bought into part of the Russian narrative after two meetings with Putin.

“If he says that Assad must stay in the negotiations until an alternative is found, this is what the Geneva Accords have already proposed,” says Michel Kilo, a leading Syrian intellectual in exile in Paris. “Assad will go after that alternative is constituted.”

Thus, the problem is not the opposition’s “Assad must go” demand but Russia and Iran’s irrational “Assad must never go” litany.

“The Syrian crisis is about only one thing,” says Nasser Zamani, an Iranian researcher on Mideast.

“It is this: how does Syria close the chapter of the Assad dynasty and enter into a new era? Unless that question is answered the blood-letting shall continue.”

For the time being, however, Moscow appears determined to divert attention from that core issue.

At the Hamburg meeting, Putin even evoked “cooperation” in rebuilding Syria, presumably with Assad still cantoned in his enclave in Damascus.

Another claim spread by Moscow and Iran is that, at the moment, there is no alternative to Assad.

That claim has also been echoed by Macron who seems to have ignored his experience of giving France an alternative government almost out of nothing in just one year.

Kilo believes that the alternative to Assad could and should come out of the Syrian civil society. A transition authority would lead Syria towards democracy.

“There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians abroad,” in this diaspora there are professors, researchers, academics who are all over the world. They could provide the framework to enable Syria to rebuild itself and, perhaps, in time, even lead the Arab world towards progress. But that, once again, means that Assad should go.”

In any case, the major democracies have already granted de facto recognition to the Syrian High Committee for Negotiations as a legitimate voice of the Syrian people.

In an interview with the French weekly Obs, Kilo also argues that even if there is no alternative to Assad he must go because he is a “criminal.”

“Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin didn’t have alternatives,” Kilo says. However, they had to be stopped.”

A leader should be judged by the links he has with his own people. However, Assad has lost that link.

According to analysts, the various “diplomatic initiatives” launched by Russia, including meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan and Geneva are unlikely to provide a way to end the conflict as long as Assad’s fate is not put at top of the agenda.