The Real Metric for Syria Is Russia’s Realpolitik

 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

We in the West really really want the tide to be turning against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Especially, it seems, The Economist, who headlined this piece in November 2011 “The tide turns against Bashar Assad” and this one about nine months later “The tide begins to turn.” But they’re not the only media outlet or organization that never misses a chance to suggest the imminent downfall of the villainous Assad.

Most recently, the defection of a former top member of the military and one-time buddy of Bashar, Manaf Tlass, has caused a stir. The “Good Sign” subhead, referring to the high-level defection in this BBC piece was at least put in quotes, but still calls out the optimism expressed by the Friends of Syria in Paris.

Mr Laurent Fabius [French foreign minister] described it as a “hard blow for the regime” that showed Mr Assad’s entourage was beginning to realise the regime was unsustainable.

Further analysis in the piece from Mohamed Yehia of BBC Arabia

This would also be damaging and embarrassing for the Damascus government, as it would be explained as an indication that cracks are appearing at the top of the ruling establishment and could encourage other Sunni defections.

Finally, near the end, this little tidbit is acknowledged

Brigadier General Tlass has been under a form of home arrest since May 2011 because he opposed the security solution that the regime has been implementing, sources say.

So if ex-General Tlass hasn’t been an active part of the military for over a year, how is this a huge damaging blow? Basically, as the Syrian government spokesman claimed, Tlass had escaped. It’s only a “hard blow” in minds around the world that want to see it as such, not a practical “hard blow” for the regime. It’s bad PR but changes no calculations for Damascus and only shows the brutal efficiency with which even trusted dissenters were corralled and rendered impotent.

Granted this could encourage other Sunni defections, but one could imagine that those who haven’t defected after a year won’t be inspired by one high-ranker who is cushioned by a wealthy family in Europe. Usually toward the end of these stories it’s revealed that there have been no mid-to-upper level Alawite defections. Alawites comprise the vast majority of military command and government officials.

No doubt the latest rash of defections is not good for Assad and doesn’t bolster the regime’s image. Yet I don’t think Assad has cared about the Western world’s perception of his government for a while now.

A much more accurate bellwether about the turning of tides in Syria—the glowing neon sign of imminent regime change—will be when Russia decides to change its view of the Syrian situation. This will reflect the moment when Assad starts thinking about making a plea, and is willing to negotiate. But according to reports on a meeting between top Syrian National Council members and Russia, this is not yet the case

Russia refuses to shift its controversial position on the crisis in Syria, the exiled opposition Syria National Council (SNC) said after talks in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov…. Underlining the gulf between the SNC and Moscow, Lavrov said Russia wanted to understand in the talks if there were “prospects” of the opposition groups uniting and joining a platform for dialogue with the Syrian government.

In my opinion, Russia is the only outside participant looking for a real solution to the massive blood-letting in Syria. This is because no one else seems to consider the Syrian opposition as part of the solution. True the opposition is dispersed and the SNC cannot speak for factions of the Free Syrian Army or others on the ground, which is the insurgency’s greatest weakness.

But do the West, the Arabs in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Turks, the U.N. and the Friends of Syria expect Bashar al-Assad to knock off all the killing because Kofi Annan says so, while the rebels keep ambushing security checkpoints and taking over Syrian towns? If the opposition is not ready to negotiate under terms that include Assad still in power—and they may never be—then outside negotiations are pointless. The international community and the SNC can try to pressure Russia to pressure the Syrian regime, but it’s clear that Russia is backing negotiations between the regime and the opposition for as long as Assad feels he can stay in (now relative) power.

The missing player in the various peace-plan scenarios in Turkey—the country with the most leverage over the opposition and the one that can most readily protect them. I’ve written more here about how Turkey must be at the forefront of any peace talks and is the only nation or organization (aside from the opposition itself) in the position to achieve a working ceasefire.

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, was launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.