Russia Renews Diplomacy in Syria, Warns of Jihadist Threat

Article Summary
Russia has renewed work for a diplomatic solution in Syria, meeting with opposition figures and calling for a new international effort, "Geneva II," for early 2013, writes Mohammad Ballout. Moscow is also warning of the perils of military intervention and the potential threat from jihadists to the region.  

Two months will pass before any new attempt is made to resolve the political crisis in Syria. The deadline is not a random bet; it stems from a conviction held by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that is based on realistic factors rather than analysis. A prominent Syrian opposition figure agrees with Lavrov.

The Russian official says that battles will rage on for two months in the absence of any political sunset for Damascus. The postponement is for technical reasons: The US administration is changing up its Syrian apparatus.

Special Advisor Frederick Hof has resigned. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will depart to make a presidential run, which may lead to her succeeding Barack Obama. Edward Djerejian, US ambassador to Damascus in the 1990s, is inaugurating his mission with attempts to renew his old Syrian network of contacts, accompanied by US security officials. In Paris last week, he met with some leaders of the Syrian opposition.

According to the Syrian opposition, the Russians have informed them that no one will be willing to go to any dialogue or negotiating table — not the political opposition abroad, the armed opposition at home nor even the American and European sponsors — because of the large quantities of arms that reached all Syrian fronts in the last few weeks. This has led to the increase of ammunition for the Free Syrian Army fighters anda jump in the quality of weapons it obtained recently, especially surface-to-air missiles.

The Russians expect a tumultuous year end in and around Damascus as odds of a military solution become likelier than ever, and for the armed opposition to regain the military upper hand in Damascus and to try to impose a crippling blockade on the capital before attempting to storm it.

The Russians told the Syrian opposition that it is necessary to face the reality that the military opposition in the Damascus countryside may overthrow the regime, before Moscow reattempts a rapprochement with regional and international parties, namely the United States, to explore the possibility of holding a second conference of the International Working Group (IWG) in Geneva.

Lavrov informed Syrian opposition members that three meetings were held with Washington, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Turks, meetings that so far have failed to reach common ground. He said that he is planning bilateral meetings with Washington to plan a second conference in Geneva on the International Working Group for Syria, on the condition that Iran and Egypt take part alongside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Qatar, Turkey, the European Union and the Arab League.

However, the Geneva conference is unlikely to take place until after next February, due to the US preoccupations with the military option. Still, the Russians will seek to transfer the decisions of the second Geneva conference to the Security Council as well as the issuance of a binding decision on it, without burdening it with the compulsory Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The Russian foreign minister told opposition sides that “We have recently heard a lot about a possible imminent siege of the presidential palace in Damascus. We will not defend it, and we will not help to deport Assad or keep him [in Syria]. However, if he manages to hold on, other regimes in the region could fall before his regime falls.”

A Syrian opposition member said that “the Russians firmly insist on the [continuation of the] Syrian army, on preserving its ability to fight and defend the state in Syria, although not [for] the Syrian regime itself, but out of a conviction that the Syrian army is the sole guarantor of the survival of minorities in Syria.

The Russians believe that the Syrian army is still the sole representative of all sects in Syria. Lavrov told the Syrian opposition in Moscow that the current opposition in its present state represents only one facet of the Syrian people and one segment of Syria.

It was forced to appoint representatives of minorities in the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as a result of failing to include them in their ranks.

The Russians believe that the external opposition — in its two forms at the SNC and the coalition — has failed to attract or represent minorities or provide guarantees about their future, especially with the rise of its Islamic and jihadist wings.

The opposition in Moscow heard that Russia predicts that the Syrian president will be able to insulate himself and remain in power until elections in spring 2014 if he manages to retain or improve his military positions.

The Russian official described the role of Qatar and Turkey in Syria as very dangerous, saying that they will pay a very dear price for their policies. He said that the step of establishing a buffer zone would be a dangerous escalation between Turkey and Syria.

According to the Russian official, it is delusional of any country to assume that it would be able to control its borders and prevent jihadists from achieving their goals in the region if chaos spreads in Syria, especially since those involved in the conflict include Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The Russians believe that any notion of a political solution in Syria has become self-evident, but that it should distinguish between dialogue and negotiations and make a clear distinction between the need to preserve the Syrian state and regime change.

The Russians, through meetings with the Syrian opposition, seek to build a civil democratic pole. In their meetings on the Syrians, they call for working on building such a pole, saying that without one, the table would turn on everyone to the interest of the jihadist groups in Syria.

As for the diplomatic scene in Tehran, Iran seems to be more calm and assured of the Syrian regime's ability to continue fighting and remain steadfast in Damascus.

Found in: syrian opposition, syrian, syria crisis, russian diplomacy in syrian crisis, russian-opposition relations, russian

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