Timeline of the past week’s developments:
- · UN SPONSORED: The international community produced a communiqué in Geneva on 30 June that endorsed the formation of an interim government with elements of the existing government and elements of the opposition.
- · UN / ARAB LEAGUE SPONSORED: Some of the external opposition including the SNC met in Cairo on 2 July to discuss the matter with the international community (some opposition groups including the Local Coordination Committees stayed away). The Cairo meeting deteriorated into a fist fight and broke up in disarray.
- · US UK FRANCE SPONSORED: Much of the Western endorsed opposition met the West in Paris on 6th July and were given promises of still more financial support.
- · RUSSIA SPONSORED: Elements of the opposition met the Russians in Moscow on 9th July and were encouraged to back a negotiated settlement.
Last Friday UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon proposed that the nature of the UN monitoring mission in Syria should shift from monitoring a cease-fire to monitoring a political settlement. The Security Council must decide before the mandate for the mission expires on 20 July.
In an attempt to further stop the bloodshed and demand all parties commit to the peace plan, the Joint Special Envoy, Kofi Annan, flew to Damascus last Sunday for talks with Bashar al-Assad. Afterwards Annan declared:
“We discussed the need to end the violence and ways and means of doing so. We agreed on an approach which I will share with the armed opposition. I also stressed the importance of moving ahead with a political dialogue which the President accepts”.
He did not give any further details of the talks except to say that he was leaving assured by Assad’s commitment to the peace plan and to a political dialogue between all parties. After the talks in Damascus, Kofi Annan travelled to Teheran and Baghdad to further discuss the situation with Iranian and Iraqi leaders. Annan’s determination to bring all relevant parties to the negotiating table is remarkable. He believes Iran plays an important role in the Syrian conflict and should therefore be part of the negotiations. Annan has criticized the strong divide between the Security Council members and their failure to guarantee peaceful political transition in Syria. He believes that the international community has been too obsessed with the role of Russia and China and that all parties are equally important:
"Russia has influence, but I don't think that events will be determined by Russia alone."
The UN strongly supports the idea of resolving the conflict through peaceful dialogue and negotiations and believes that a “transitional government formed on basis of mutual consent, including members of the present government and the opposition” must be backed by all parties. The Western backedopposition groups reject the inclusion of Assad or any members of the present government in the future governing body of Syria. Meanwhile Russia and China continue to cautiously support this initiative. Kofi Annan recognises the failure of his peace plan and has asked Syria and the international community to put more effort into finding a peaceful solution:
“It is crucial for the Security Council and the Action Group to pressure the parties to prevent any further escalation of the conflict and advance the prospects of a political transition.”
USA, UK AND FRANCE
The Paris ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting on the Friday 6th July called for more support for the Syrian opposition and increased sanctions against the Assad government. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told the meeting that all countries should take action and that ‘there is no way of sitting on the side lines on this.’
Many members of the Syrian opposition attended. Russia and China did not.
French President Francois Hollande opened the event. He said it was a "human and political necessity" to stop the conflict. Britain, America and France were the driving force behind this latest meeting, after the disappointing outcome of the Geneva conference.
Western hopes that the defection of army general Manaf Tlass represented the erosion of Assad support shrank slightly as Tlass failed to emerge after fleeing the country and heading to Paris where the ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting was taking place.
Britain announced a further £9 million in humanitarian aid to provide food and shelter to refugees“inside and outside Syria”. The UK also provided another half a million pounds to Western backed factions of Syria’s political opposition.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton urged Russia and China to ‘stop supporting the Assad regime’. Mrs Clinton said she did not think Russia and China believed ‘they are paying any price at all, nothing at all, for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime.’ She added, ‘The only way that will change this is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress.’
Xinhuanet, the Chinese news agency, reported that the situation in Syria is “seen by some as a proxy war among the superpowers” and these “unspoken interests” are prolonging the crisis. UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, told the Guardian that Russia, the West and Arab states should end their "destructive competition" over the country.
Perhaps this is the moment to remind ourselves of why Syria is important to Russia. Clearly, Russia has a great investment in Syria, both economically and geopolitically. However, Syria’s symbolic importance cannot be overstated. Many Russians have believed in a Western conspiracy to undermine Russia’s geopolitical influence ever since the West took a lead role in the Balkans at the time of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. More recently Russia felt wrong footed by the Western adventure in Libya. Russia has drawn a line in the sand on the Syria issue. If Russia allows its role in its one true client state in the Middle East to be whittled away, it feels its influence in the international arena will be so reduced that it will no longer be able to hold its head up high on the world stage. Worse still, some Russians feel that if Syria slips through its fingers, it would have to withdraw from the battle for international hegemony and focus on dealing with its own disgruntled Muslim minorities who would feel empowered. And as with all superpowers, there is in any case the matter of hubris. Russia has no particular commitment to Bashar al Assad. But it has an absolute commitment to Syria.
On Monday (9th July) Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov again called for an end to the violence in Syria and for political dialogue. Lavrov commenced the talks with the Syrian opposition in Moscow by emphasising Russia’s engagement with “both sides” of the Syrian conflict. Referring to the talks that took place in Geneva last week he stated:
"Russia is one of the countries that actively works with the Syrian government and different opposition forces, in order to implement the Kofi Annan Plan. This will become an important chance to carry out the agreements which were reached in Geneva."
In reference to the recent ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting, which Russia did not attend, Lavrov stated that he disagrees with the unilateral nature of these talks, claiming that it is immoral to rely exclusively on just one part of the opposition. He said:
“We told our colleagues that if they want to meet as friends of Syria, they mustn’t keep meeting as friends of part of the opposition, since we’re trying to unite our efforts as external players and coordinate with each other… I don’t know how that group can have a positive effect on the efforts exerted and discussed today.”
Russia has also not been willing to join the ‘friends’ discussions because it might imply they endorsed the West’s view that in order to resolve the crisis, Assad must step down.
In support of Kofi Annan’s plan Lavrov said that Russia is prepared to participate in meetings to unify the opposition which in turn will necessitate working with the government.
Following the June 30 Geneva discussions, Lavrov has spoken out against certain Western countries resorting to what he calls distortions and reinterpretations of the original decisions. Alexei Pushkov, Chairman of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, declared there was a ‘collision’ between the United States and Russia in the aftermath of the agreement on political transformation in Syria:
‘On one hand we can see the United States and the so-called Friends of Syria who want Assad to resign. On the other, Russia and China are seeking an immediate end to the violence and the earliest possible beginning of talks between Syrian government and opposition.’
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has announced (Tuesday 10th July) that Russia is offering to host another meeting, similar to the one held in Geneva in June. He also stressed that no foreign power had the right to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad. Bogdanov has also spoken about Russia’s military-technical cooperation with Syria, defending its position and saying that it does not violate Moscow’s international commitments. Moscow has halted new weapons sales to Syria for the present. Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy chief of the Russian military and technical cooperation agency, told Russian news agencies that it will continue, however, with previously agreed exports, ‘while the situation in Syria is unstable, there will be no new deliveries of arms there.’