Moscow must end the deadlock in Syria – By Bassma Kodmani
Russia should set aside the issue of when Assad should leave, writes Bassma Kodmani
The youths who rose up a year ago to demand their freedom are the future of Syria. They are shaped by the same political culture as their parents, which has always been staunchly nationalistic and wary of foreign meddling. They do not want to become the children of the west – nor do they wish to see their sovereignty trampled on.
The key to ending the deadly stalemate actually lies with Russia, long the main foreign operator in the country. When anti-western feeling ran high among the Arab people in the 1950s and 1960s, the region’s leading nations – Egypt and Syria foremost among them – enhanced their legitimacy by building strong ties with Moscow and creating a strategic distance from the west. But Russia’s military support and diplomatic protection of the regime of Bashar al-Assad is overriding these memories. For almost two years, the Syrian opposition has been asking: “Why does Russia need to rely on a criminal clique when the majority of our population and political elites could be supportive of a close co-operative relationship with Moscow?”
Each side must cease to make this issue an obstacle to exploring the future of Syria. For the sake of the discussions, Russia and the Syrian opposition must set aside the issue of when Mr Assad should leave the scene. They should work together to discuss all the other issues, filling the blank areas that are fuelling anxieties, without either side formally changing its position.The opposition does not favour a military outcome. It will explore every possibility to end the people’s ordeal; to salvage the nation, society and the institutions of the state; and to restore sovereignty. Mr Assad’s description of the opposition as “a gang of criminals” ina speech early this month was no surprise. It is in perfect accordance with his deeds. He and his entourage have played every evil game possible to turn the country into a dangerous place. They want to equate the end of his family’s rule with the end of Syria.
Moscow does not wish to make the end of the Assad regime the point of departure of a political solution and does not seem willing to back off from this position. But Syrians who rose against the president and were met with mass murder cannot live under his rule any longer, and will not renounce their demand that the transition phase exclude Mr Assad. Can this deadlock be broken to open the way for a political solution?
They have more common concerns and interests than any country, including those known as the “Friends of the Syrian People”, likes to admit. Russia fears extremists; Syrians fear them too. Russia fears for Alawi and Christian citizens in a post-Assad regime; Syrians want to protect the diversity of their society because it is inseparable from their history and identity. The majority of the population knows the country has no future if the minorities’ prosperity is not guaranteed. Russia fears chaos; Syrians fear it more than Moscow as it would mean the disintegration of their country. Russia has interests in Syria; Syrians believe they have an interest in accommodating Russian interests.
Together they can draw up a comprehensive plan that includes the formation of a transitional government, security arrangements, a transitional justice programme, and the measures needed to stabilise the country and prevent provocations at its borders. Together they can reach an understanding of who should be excluded from the transition, who ought to stay and for how long. There is every reason to believe that, once those blank areas are filled and the two sides reach an understanding on the transition period, they will be able to agree on the way to get there – and the issue of Assad will resolve itself. Many Syrians believe Russia will discover Mr Assad cannot be part of this plan.
Russia should listen carefully to the Syrian people; their message is simple and clear. They do not want their revolution to be hijacked by any one force or group from inside or outside. They want their freedom and they will earn it sooner or later. Moscow should look out for those who were its friends and could once again be its partners and allies. These voices need to be offered some prospect of success. They should not be pushed into the arms of the west, which pursues its own interests. Mr Assad is a liability for Russia. With the Syrian people, Moscow can turn the dark page of this regime.
The writer is director of the Arab Reform Initiative and former head of foreign relations in the Syrian National Council