Russia’s determination to preserve its last remaining ally in the Middle East collides head-on with United States desire to replace President Bashar Al Assad with a democracy at today’s pivotal United Nations-brokered conference seeking a political solution to the violence in Syria.
Efforts at bridging the Russia-United States divide hold the key to international envoy Kofi Annan’s plan for easing power from Mr Assad’s grip, and ending 16 months of violence in the country before it erupts into full-blown civil war.
Without agreement among the major powers on how to form a transitional government for the country, Mr Assad’s regime – Iran’s closest ally – would be emboldened to try to remain in power indefinitely, and that would also complicate the US aim of halting Iran’s nuclear goals.
At talks last night, top US and Russian diplomats remained deadlocked over the negotiating text to agree on guidelines and principles for “a Syria-led transition”. Mr Annan, a former UN chief whose efforts to end the Syrian crisis have thus far fallen short, arrived this morning without speaking to reporters.
Hopes have centred on persuading Russia – Syria’s most important ally, protector and arms supplier – to agree to a plan that would end the 4-decade rule of the Assad family dynasty. But the Russians want Syria alone to be the master of its fate, at a time when Mr Assad’s regime and the opposition are increasingly bitterly polarized.
“Ultimately, we want to stop the bloodshed in Syria. If that comes through political dialogue, we are willing to do that,” said Mr Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul, Turkey. “We are not willing to negotiate with Mr Assad and those who have murdered Syrians. We are not going to negotiate unless they leave Syria.”
The negotiating text for the multinational conference calls for establishing a transitional government of national unity, with full executive powers, that could include members of Mr Assad’s government and the opposition and other groups. It would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and elections.
But the text that would serve as the framework for Annan’s peace efforts also would “exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”
Foreign ministers from all five of the permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – have converged at the UN’s European headquarters. Russia and China have twice used their council veto to shield Syria from UN sanctions. For his “Action Group on Syria”, UN-Arab League envoy Annan also invited Turkey, UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon and the European Union, along with Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar as heads of three groups within the League of Arab States.
Major regional players Iran and Saudi Arabia were not invited. The Russians objected to the Saudis, who support the Syrian opposition. The US objected to the Islamic Republic, which supports Mr Assad’s regime. Much of the work remains to be hammered out by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met for an hour in St Petersburg yesterday, and then had dinner before Mrs Clinton left Russia. Mr Lavrov predicted the meeting had a “good chance” of finding a way forward, despite the grim conditions on the ground.
Russia insists that outsiders cannot order a political solution for Syria, while the US is adamant that Mr Assad should not be allowed to remain in power at the top of the transitional government. They also disagree over what steps could be taken next at the Security Council, such as calling for an arms embargo, after today’s meeting.