What is the scenario for a negotiated solution in Syria? Backroom diplomacy or a round table that groups several Syrian oppositionists and regime representatives in either Geneva or Vienna? Two days ago, a meeting in Moscow brought together a delegation from the Syrian National Coordination Committee (NCC), composed of Haytham Mannaa and Raja Nasser, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his assistant Mikhail Bogdanov. According to an opposition figure, they put forth two possible scenarios for unconditional negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition.
The first scenario involves Moscow hosting delegations from the Syrian opposition and the regime in the first phase, then the UN and Arab mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will manage backroom diplomacy. That scenario involves indirect negotiations to determine the agenda of the second-stage negotiations, which will produce a transitional government with full authority, in accordance with the Geneva Accord.
In the second scenario, all Syrian opposition factions meet in either Geneva or Vienna with a senior delegation from the Syrian government, which will probably include Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Presidential Advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haider, and military and security advisers.
A senior Arab and UN diplomatic source said to As-Safir that in that scenario the Russians persuaded the Syrians to sit at the negotiating table in Geneva. The Syrian oppositionists agreed to that and notified the Russians that their negotiating delegation was ready. But they requested that the first phase of the negotiations, which may take place in Geneva, not be called “national dialogue sessions” but be referred to as a “preliminary,” or “consultative,” meeting for the Syrian national dialogue. They also requested that the subsequent meetings be held in Damascus with international guarantees and under the heading “The Syrian National Dialogue.”
The Russians pledged to the Americans that Iran will not interfere in that political process. The Russians also asked the Americans to pressure their Gulf allies to not disrupt the political process.
According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the US-Russian coordination is trying to finalize the Syrian regime’s negotiators, although France did not participate in the US-Russian meetings in Geneva or London.
According to the Arab and UN diplomatic source, the negotiators have been selected, in coordination with the Russians and Americans, from a list of potential negotiators produced by the UN political department last June.
The source, which is monitoring US-Russian rapprochement, said that the Americans are committed to reaching a political solution in Syria in accordance with the Russian vision even though the Americans are not convinced of the Russian point of view, which calls for President Bashar al-Assad remaining in charge during the transitional phase. The Russians are insisting on that point not out of intransigence but because they consider the regime to be an indivisible entity headed by Assad.
The Russians think that changing the Syrian president would cause the collapse of the entire regime because he controls the military and security establishment. The interconnections between the Syrian president, the military and security establishment and the four-decade-old security structure make it impossible to sideline state institutions from the transition process. This is something that the Americans and the Russians agree on in order to preserve stability after Assad and spare Syria the fate of Iraq and to prevent the Islamists and jihadists from spreading chaos inside Syria and in the neighboring countries.
The Arab and UN diplomatic source said that the Americans are betting that Russia’s position will change in the course of the political process after the Russians obtain guarantees, from the Syrian opposition in the regime, and get a clearer picture of what will be the Syrian regime’s alternative, which they will play a role in forming.
The source said that the Americans’ priority is not really to reach a political solution, but to get rid of president Assad. He said that the Americans do not yet have a credible roadmap that the Russians agree on. Moreover, Lakhdar Brahimi’s team is nowhere near producing a new plan.
Since his last visit to Damascus, the failure of his talks with Assad, the criticisms he directed toward Assad, and his “pro-American” interpretation of the Geneva Accord, Brahimi’s role in trying to revive the political process has been diminished. His position as mediator has been weakened and his credibility in the eyes of Damascus has been damaged. He hasn’t visited Damascus in three months and only reads the reports of his office manager there, Mokhtar Lamani.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, through its ambassador in Damascus, requested that Syrian officials stop their media campaign against Brahimi in order to revive his role. Sources said that he has in the last few hours made an unannounced visit to Tehran to discuss Iran’s role in resolving the crisis.
In the past two days, the spat over the Geneva Accord between the US and Russian foreign departments damaged the US-Russian rapprochement over Assad’s fate. US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that the Geneva Accord “requires changes in the power structure or the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.” Her Russian counterpart Alexander Ukashević retorted, “This is a biased interpretation, which makes it difficult to find ways to end the confrontation in Syria soon and transform the conflict into a comprehensive Syrian national dialogue.”
According to the Arab and UN diplomatic source, Qatar’s attempts to impose an interim government before the Arab summit on March 26 is aimed at sabotaging the Russian-American rapprochement on Syria.
A Syrian oppositionist said that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov thinks that Qatar is trying to sabotage Russian diplomatic efforts and that Lavrov now considers Qatar a rogue state that will pay a heavy price if it continues acting in this way. Lavrov feels that Qatar is behaving irresponsibly and that it seeks to support the Muslim Brotherhood’s quest to dominate Syria, which may cause regional conflagration.
The Syrian oppositionist was pessimistic that a regional outbreak, which would include Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, could be avoided if the political solution in Syria fails.
Lavrov told the Russian oppositionists that Russia is worried that the crisis could reach a critical stage and spill over the Syrian border. He said that neighboring countries that are America’s allies, such as Jordan, may disappear from the map if the conflict spreads, and that Lebanon will experience another civil war. As for Turkey, he said that it risks having the conflict spread to its interior and that it will soon be unable to control the flow of Salafist jihadists from Turkey to Syria. He said that Turkish policy will backfire when those jihadist groups fighting the Syrian regime grow too strong.
According to the Syrian oppositionist, the Russians may put forth a new initiative before the Doha conference because they expect Qatar to make a greater push toward militarizing the conflict.
Two days ago, the Russians received a high-level Syrian military delegation requesting weapons. Moscow had already begun handing over 36 Yakovlev fighter jets that have been modified to perform combat missions.
The Syrian oppositionist said that the Syrian minorities’ fate has become a European obsession and that the unconditional support for the Syrian opposition has ended because of the latter’s inability to contain the rise of Muslim jihadism. He said that American and European lobbies are putting pressure to ensure the future of those minorities and to launch a political process in Syria.
As part of the attempts to bring together the opposition and the regime, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said yesterday that French and American officials are working with the Russians to develop “a list of Syrian officials that [the Syrian opposition] would agree” to negotiate with.
In a speech to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the French National Assembly, Fabius said that “during the past few weeks we worked together on an idea that has not yet materialized. It entails putting together a list of Syrian officials that the Syrian National Council would find acceptable.” He said that the head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib took a “very courageous” stand in agreeing to negotiate. He added, “We discussed this matter with the Russians and the Americans. And there are contacts underway to try to reach a political solution within the framework of the Geneva Accord.”
Fabius reiterated his country’s position and said that France and Britain were calling “to ease the arms ban. ... It is no secret that France is considering going further in lifting the ban. ... We believe that it is the right thing to do. During the coming days, there will be steps taken toward this end.”