Altering the Past to Shape the Prologue

Misleading commentary by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov aimed at rewriting history and the failure of his American counterpart to correct the record may indicate an evolving Russian-American understanding that the stated purpose of Geneva peace negotiations—political transition in Syria—has been overtaken by events. If transition is not the aim of the negotiations, one may see in the coming sessions of the Geneva talks a Russian-American attempt to bind the Syrian opposition to a political arrangement falling far short of that which has been mandated by the United Nations.

Peace talks are now in recess. Their official purpose is to implement an agreement reached on June 30, 2012 between the permanent five members of the Security Council and others. That agreement—the Action Group on Syria Final Communiqué—called for the implementation of Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point de-escalation plan and the negotiated creation of a “transitional governing body” that would rule Syria with “full executive power” during a political transition period of unspecified length. The transitional governing body would be peopled on the basis of “mutual consent,” meaning that the Syrian government delegation could exclude any opposition figures it deemed objectionable and the opposition delegation could do likewise. It was and is very straightforward.

In the current Geneva talks the Syrian opposition has, without reservation, accepted the 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué terms of reference. The delegation representing Bashar al-Assad has not. History repeats itself: this was exactly the case in February 2014 during the disastrous first round of Geneva negotiations. Then, as now, Moscow’s Syrian client declined to accept the central purpose of the peace talks.

On March 24, in the Kremlin with Secretary of State John Kerry at his side, Lavrov said the following: “I’d like to remind you that the Geneva communiqué, which everyone likes to quote, now was approved by the government just a few days after it was signed in Geneva. And the opposition did not do that for a long time. Moreover, the Geneva communiqué was approved by the UN Security Council only 18 months after it was adopted, because our proposal to approve it by the UN Security Council was not first supported by our Western partners, who wanted to approve this communiqué with additional preconditions, which was not a part of the deal before, and we are used to respecting the existing deals.”

The Syrian opposition was, to be sure, shocked and disappointed in 2012 that the Final Communiqué did not explicitly, by name, spell out the obvious: that a Syrian political transition including Bashar al-Assad would be a quick trip from the frying pan into the fire. It was not happy with the “mutual consent” compromise.

Yet when it came time to convene all-Syrian negotiations in Geneva in early 2014, the opposition explicitly accepted the Final Communiqué as the basis for the talks. The Assad regime rejected it. UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi took a gamble: he convened the negotiations in spite of the regime’s rejection of what had been decided in Geneva in June 2012. The result was unsurprising: Assad’s representatives refused to negotiate, secure in the knowledge that the regime could—with full Russian and Iranian support lending it complete impunity—continue its program of collective punishment, eradication, and mass homicide. Two years later there is a significant reduction in violence, but the Assad regime continues to escape and evade on the issue of Syrian political transition.

Lavrov knows this to be true. He should not go unchallenged by American officials unless, of course, his historical rewrite serves Washington’s current purposes. His claim that it took 18 months for the United Nations explicitly to endorse the Final Communiqué, allegedly because an early Russian attempt was improperly sidetracked, is but another attempt to whitewash his government’s facilitation of a client regime’s horrific survival strategy.

Soon after the signing of the Final Communiqué the United Kingdom tabled a draft Security Council resolution that would characterize the Communiqué favorably and mandate—under Chapter VII and in the context of renewing a United Nations’ monitoring mission in Syria—the implementation of the Communiqué’s essential enabler: the Kofi Annan six-point plan. Annan’s plan called for several de-escalatory steps, including separation of combatants, an end to bombing and shelling of civilian neighborhoods, releases of political prisoners, free access for news media, and protection for peaceful protests. The plan (and the British draft resolution) recognized that all Syrian parties bore responsibility for cooling things down. Annan realized, however, that the Assad regime, having employed the full range and weight of Syrian state coercive assets against opponents (armed and not), was uniquely qualified and totally obligated to take the first steps.

Russia, having agreed to the Final Communiqué, agreed to the six-point plan as well. The plan was an integral part of the Communiqué. Knowing, however, that its client would be required to take the initial de-escalatory steps both by the plan itself and the draft resolution endorsing the Communiqué, Moscow balked. After failing to extract the Chapter VII teeth from the draft, it vetoed the resolution. Russia would not or could not compel its client to refrain from mass murder, and it did not want to see that client subjected to internationally mandated sanctions that would, at least on paper, require Moscow to cooperate.

Indeed, within days of the Final Communiqué’s signing Russia began to feel buyer’s remorse. In the lead-up to the agreement Western diplomats had argued that Assad—already the author of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a conflict that had produced the alarming figure of 17,000 deaths—simply could not, by definition, lead a transition to what the United Nations was calling for: a democratic and pluralistic Syria. Russian diplomats countered that the decision had to be exclusively Syrian. Hence the “mutual consent” clause that applied to the body that would govern Syria pending permanent arrangements. Russian diplomats at the time understood and agreed to this mutual veto arrangement.

What Russia may not have understood then was that its Syrian client—Bashar al-Assad—had no intention of placing his political fate in the hands of anyone. Russia may have calculated that a political compromise—one featuring a transitional governing body that could include Syrian government institutions and senior officials not steeped in crime—would have provided Assad an honorable exit. After all, in mid-2012 Washington’s red line abdication was still a year away: Moscow had every reason to believe that President Barack Obama meant what he said months earlier when he told Bashar al-Assad to step aside. But Assad, his family, and his entourage had no intention of going anywhere: Syria was their property and Syrians their chattel.

Moscow got the message. After the July veto and before the end of 2012 Russian officials were telling American counterparts that the clear language of the Final Communiqué was not as it seemed: that the transitional governing body had nothing to do with the Syrian presidency and its security forces; that it really signified a national unity government headed by a consensus prime minister; that full executive power should be understood to mean those (nonexistent) powers already exercised by the prime minister and his cabinet. This Alice in Wonderland rendering of what had been agreed was presented shamelessly.

None of this is esoterica from ancient history. Either the current negotiations will proceed with all deliberate speed to the political transition phase agreed in Geneva in June 2012 or Syria’s slide toward an Assad-Baghdadi condominium will continue, with all of the dire implications for Syrians, their neighbors, and American allies in Western Europe. That which was true in mid-2012 when the body count was 17,000 has not become false in 2016 with the death toll multiplied by 15 or more: if the Assad regime remains in power in any part of Syria the country cannot emerge from the abyss into which it has fallen. Indeed, with the regime in power the digging will not stop and new depths will be plumbed.

American inaction in the face of mass murder and supportive power projection by Russia and Iran has exacerbated a humanitarian and political catastrophe. The icing on this toxic cake would be a deal with Moscow to delete or redefine political transition as the aim of peace talks in Geneva. Indeed, if Washington wishes simply to accommodate Tehran, Moscow, and the Assad regime in western Syria while it chases the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) with airplanes and autonomy-seeking Kurds in the east, it may end up with the ultimate humiliation: partnership with Assad. This is what Russia seeks. This is why Mr. Lavrov rewrites history.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands during a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Harnik/Pool