28 February 2013 — The message which the Syrian opposition will receive in Rome today is that the Americans and the Europeans will not fight to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad, and that they will adopt the “Russian solution”, of which the foundations were laid by the Geneva agreement, in exchange for Russia pledging not to fight to maintain the regime in Damascus, but instead help it leave through a series of gradual steps.
Representatives of the National Coalition will also hear that they, along with all other parties to the opposition, must accept to enter into negotiations over a transitional period during which Assad would remain President holding powers of pure form, and that continued financial and “non-lethal” military assistance and political support would be contingent on their accepting such an offer.
This is in effect the understanding reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Berlin two days ago, after this had been preceded by clear signs from Washington that it was handing the issue over to Moscow, so that it may enjoy their joint sponsorship, exactly as had taken place in Yemen, when the issue had been handed over to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and when both Washington and Moscow had supported the GCC’s successful initiative, which ended with a historical settlement and without any blood having been shed.
The Syrian opposition had tried to elude the Rome meeting to avoid embarrassing itself and causing further division within its ranks, if it were to find itself forced to admit to the reality on the international scene and to accept these joint recommendations, but Kerry insisted on delivering the message himself.
And if opposition members saw in the “concession” announced by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem from Moscow, that his government would agree to engage in dialogue with the armed opposition, a mere maneuver which Damascus itself quickly negated by setting the condition that they should lay down their arms, the Americans, who have as it seems obtained Russian guarantees about the seriousness of Muallem’s offer and promises of procedural steps on the part of the regime, want the opposition to take a positive step in return when it gathers on Saturday in Istanbul to select a Prime Minister for the transitional government it intends to form. Washington is stressing that the personality to be selected should be a moderate one who would accept dialogue and would be able to impose it, and that, should this prove impossible, the opposition should then abandon the very notion of a transitional government and wait for negotiations to start with Damascus and for a shared notion concerning the government to take shape.
Yet this “rosy scenario” which the Americans and the Russians have arrived at is contingent on numerous factors in order to be successful. Indeed, there is a complete lack of trust between the two sides, the opposition and the regime, and building such trust will require a great deal of time and effort. This is perhaps what Moscow is wagering on, as Assad’s term in office may well end before negotiations do, and it would have thus spared itself the reputation of having abandoned its ally.
The reality on the ground, on the other hand, might not allow for repeating the experience of Yemen in Syria. Indeed, the war has left behind a tremendous amount of destruction, human casualties and economic losses, and has created deep scars in the fabric of Syrian society it will not be easy to leap over. Furthermore, both sides still in effect cling to their stances and their positions, and each of them believes that they could, with a little help, inflict defeat and impose their conditions on the other.
There is also the fact that there are multiple foreign parties with influence on the crisis. Thus, what Moscow might accept may not suit Tehran, which is implicated with weapons, funding and fighters, and which seeks to include the solution to the Syrian crisis in a comprehensive package of negotiations with the West. And what the Arabs backing the opposition might support may not be acceptable to other parties that are trying to stand in the middle, such as Egypt and Turkey.
Yet the positive conclusion of all of this is the fact that everyone has become convinced that the Assad regime cannot be maintained. There thus remains the appropriate exit process to chart the map of influence in the new regime.