Russia Talks to Syrian Dissident, Looks Beyond Assad

Article Summary
A Syrian dissident returning from a meeting in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia is willing to consider transition scenarios that do not involve retaining President Bashar al-Assad, reports Mohammed Ballout. The Russians’ main goal is to protect their interests in Syria—and to maintain a strong Syrian military that can do so.

“There is nothing sacred in Moscow's calculations regarding Syria, except of course Moscow's interests.” That statement was made by a Syrian dissident who just returned from Moscow after meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a number of Russian diplomats overseeing the Syrian situation.

It is obvious that the Russians do not consider President Bashar al-Assad’s position to be sacred, and that they will not insist on him being part of the deal they seek to achieve between the regime and the opposition. A member of the Syrian opposition reported that a Russian official repeatedly said that Assad’s fate is in the hands of the Syrians alone, and it should not be decided by Russia or any others.

The Syrian dissident also gave an account of Russia’s mistakes in the Syrian conflict, after which he stated that the Russians have come to realize that the Syrian regime cannot survive under current conditions. Therefore, Russia is holding political meetings to find acceptable alternatives.

The dissident said that the Russians are open to more than one scenario and have become more flexible than expected, especially after they realized that nothing will stop the process of change in Syria. However, they do not want to “throw out the baby with the bath water.” In other words, the Russian objective is still to control regime change without the collapse of the state while preserving Russian interests via a new government composed of the opposition and a part of the current regime whose hands are not yet tainted with blood. The Russians think that some in the current regime are eligible to lead that transitional phase, but a transitional process cannot happen without the collapse of the state.

The dissident said that Russia has three conditions in finding an acceptable settlement in Syria, and that they are willing to sacrifice president Assad and his family circle, if this is necessary to achieve its principal goals. The three elements are: preserving Russian influence in Syria; finding an alternative Syrian administration that would agree to protect Russian interests; and preserving Syrian state organs, particularly the army, which is the last line of defense for the success of the transitional process and for the protection of Russian interests.

The Syrian dissident said that meetings with Russian officials revealed that the Russians are anticipating three different scenarios. In the first scenario, Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa would retain a key role in any transitional process. Presidential powers would be transferred to Sharaa and the post of prime minister would be given to the opposition. It was proposed that an Alawite from the opposition be made prime minister in order to reassure the minorities. The names put forward for that position were Aref Dalila and Haytham Mannaa.

In their discussions with the Syrian opposition, the Russian diplomats asserted that they do not necessarily want to remove Assad from his post as part of this scenario. Rather, they seek to take away his powers and his military authority as a starting point for a political process. Hence, Assad would remain in power, but his deputy would be the absolute authority to negotiate free and open parliamentary elections, after which the president will depart from the political scene.

The second scenario involves Assad leaving his post were he unable to remain head of state following the transfer of his presidential powers. The Russians think that Assad would be able to participate in the presidential election but they suggested establishing a reconciliation committee that would hear all presidential candidates and determine whether they could participate in the elections or not.

The Syrian dissident said that the Russians are not betting on Assad remaining in power, as they think that the army can defend the regime and the state, and that the army is stable and can continue to resist [dissolution]. The source claims that the Russians also said the Syrian army—over which the Russians have considerable influence—was about to play a strong role at the onset of the crisis but that senior officials changed their minds and decided to support the regime. They only did so after the opposition became armed, the Free Syrian Army was formed, external intervention became a possible scenario and armed groups tied to the Muslim Brotherhood emerged.

That source stated that in the third scenario, the Russians do not rule out establishing a transitional government headed by a military figure supported by the army, some elements of the regime and the opposition.

The opposition members who met with the Russians see certain conditions as necessary to initiate the transition process. The opposition requested a plan that starts with the withdrawal of the army from cities, replacing it with the police and the security forces of the interior ministry. In the plan, all detainees who had not been involved in combat operations would be released while the president's family and his entourage would be stripped of their positions and powers. They also requested isolating all persons that are hostile to or have worked against the uprising. Finally, they also call for a reconciliation and accountability commission for all officials involved in crimes against the uprising—from the rank of Associate to the rank of Major General.

The opposition wants to obtain political and administrative positions in the provinces and inside the council of ministers. It also wants to transfer the presidential powers to the vice president—without specifying his name—and form an expanded national government in which the opposition would lead the key ministries. The military would have the right to appoint the defense minister. The opposition’s transitional plan, which was presented to the [Russian] president, proposes that regime change should begin by placing the security organs under the authority of the government, after which they would be reconfigured at the outset of the political transition.

Found in: syrian

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