Syria: Will Russia Deliver at Geneva?

Moscow’s decision to block a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning human rights abuses in Syria—catastrophic abuses authored in the main by a family regime posing as a government—should cast serious doubt on any expectation of Russia facilitating a Syrian political transition at the conference scheduled for Montreux and Geneva on January 22. Moscow seems perfectly at ease with the broad outlines of its client’s brutal survival strategy and fully at home with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s political survival. To the extent US strategy for Montreux-Geneva rests on the expectation of Russia cooperating in easing the Assad regime toward the exits, it is an assumption well worth reexamining.

No doubt Secretary of State John Kerry has invested considerable time and effort in cultivating a relationship of trust and confidence with his Russian counterpart, the impressively competent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. No doubt Kerry is trying to make the most of a diplomatic poker hand that lacks face cards or even two of a kind, now that the credible threat of US military action against the regime’s tools of mass terror has been traded away. No doubt he has made the strongest possible political case to Lavrov: that the criminal syndicate trying to retain power in Syria has been, and will continue to be, the irresistible magnet that draws other criminals to Syria, mainly in the form of foreign extremists honing their skills for use elsewhere. No doubt John Kerry sees the Swiss meetings as the only game in town.

Kerry’s strategy for Switzerland rests on Russia. The United States is asking the Syrian opposition to come to the conference with a transitional governing body reduced to paper: a list of names top-heavy with officials and uniformed officers (current and former, including Alawites and other minorities) who have served with competence and decency in ministries and in the military. Such a roster would ideally do two things: persuade those Syrians still bound by default to a self-serving clan that there is indeed a viable alternative; and assure the Russians that a Syria without the Assads and Makhloufs would still be a Syria that preserves and respects Russian interests. This fortuitous combination of reactions produced by the reassuring roster would ideally induce Moscow to encourage the clan to step aside.

One hopes that Mr. Kerry has, or at least thinks he has, the prior assurance of Mr. Lavrov that this indeed is how things will work out. Absent that assurance, Montreux-Geneva is a roll of the dice: dice loaded, in fact, in favor of the regime and its backers.

Let us stipulate that the Syrian National Coalition should put forward a transitional governing roster reassuring to minorities, broadly acceptable to Syrian nationalists across-the-board, and not offensive to Moscow. Let us also assume that the administration summons the courage and good sense to authorize and direct Ambassador Robert Ford to try to bind the militarily-significant Islamic Front to this initiative. Let us then suspend skepticism and disbelief and posit that the roster gets tabled with the support of everyone (save the regime and al-Qaeda) and inspires the enthusiastic gratitude of Mr. Lavrov and company. What next?

If past is prologue, Russia will adhere to its position that this is a matter for Syrians to work out; that Moscow will support whatever is agreed by Syrian negotiators. The opposition, roster in hand, would then be invited to sit with a regime delegation that has all but declared the reelection of Bashar al-Assad.

Would Moscow then leave the Syrian delegates to their own devices, or would President Vladimir Putin pick up the phone and tell Bashar al-Assad that the game is up: that he can stay in office with diminished powers until the end of his term in July 2014, with Russia in the meantime helping to find a soft place for the Assad-Makhlouf clan and its money to land. And would Assad respond with some version of “OK boss”? Or would he continue to ride on the backs of foreign militiamen placed at his disposal by Iran, which views the subordination of the Assad regime to Hezbollah as a matter of vital national security interest? Finally, if under this scenario the regime defies the Russians, how would Moscow react?

If Montreux-Geneva is not simply the roll of loaded dice, many of these questions have already been settled by Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov recently tantalized some observers by saying that regime proclamations of Bashar al-Assad’s pending reelection are not helpful in terms of atmospherics for the coming conference; a statement promptly contradicted by the regime. Moscow has reportedly done some things on the margins to expedite visas for some United Nations relief workers in Syria. Yet Russia’s continued obstruction of the Security Council in the face of its client’s war crimes and crimes against humanity (as reported to the Human Rights Council by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry) suggests, at least to the naked eye, that the Washington-Moscow choreography for Montreux-Geneva is missing some basic moves.

The Obama administration did not anticipate that the Assad regime would use the Washington-Moscow agreement on chemical weapons as a free pass to terrorize civilian populations. When the administration pressed for the setting of a conference date, it did not intend for the regime to treat that date as an interim finish line, as it sprints for military advantage with the critical assistance of Iranian-raised militias and Russian rearmament. When the administration urged the nationalist Syrian opposition to commit itself to attending the conference, it had no inkling that Islamist rivals to the West’s opposition of choice would humiliate the recipients of US meals-ready-to-eat, medical kits, and pickup trucks.

In light of these unanticipated unpleasantries it is important to get Montreux-Geneva right. It is vital that the conference be preceded by a broadly based humanitarian truce, one featuring unchallenged United Nations humanitarian access granted without reservation by the so-called Syrian government. It is essential that the United States and Russia be on the same page operationally with regard to political transition long before delegates book their flights.

It is understandable that national leaders who have no earthly idea what to do about Syria would be tempted to call for a conference in the hope of something good turning up. Indeed, those who have rejected options that could have helped to build an effective opposition, mitigate the humanitarian abomination, and better support friends and allies being sucked into Syria’s downward spiral, now claim that a meeting in Switzerland is all there is. All the more reason to prepare it carefully lest it do more harm than good. All the more reason to pull the plug now and go back to the policy drawing board unless real progress is made on the humanitarian front and Washington knows, with much more specificity than impression, that this conference will turn out well.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, during final negotiating session over agreement to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. September 14, 2013, Geneva Switzerland. (Photo: Wikimedia)