Getting Russia to throw in the towel on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been the key to halting Syria’s violence and avoiding a costly and unpredictable civil war ever since Syria descended into conflict more than 15 months ago, many regional experts say.
On Thursday the United Nations envoy on Syria and former Secretary General Kofi Annan unveiled to the UN Security Council a proposal to overcome the stumbling block of Russian support for President Assad by putting all five permanent Security Council members at the head of a plan to replace an exiled Assad with newly elected leaders and a new Syrian constitution.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and France, which have favored Assad’s ouster, and Russia and China, which have not, would finally be on the same page on Syria at the head of a “contact group” of these world powers and regional countries.
But Russia's willingness to go along with Mr. Annan's plan, analysts say, depends on whether or not it believes that its interests in Syria, its last toehold in the Middle East, can be preserved despite Assad’s departure.
Annan discussed his plan at a closed-door session of the Security Council just hours after he told the UN General Assembly that the alternative to the world community very shortly coming together on a peace plan was “all-out civil war.”
"If things do not change, the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence, and even all-out civil war," Annan told the General Assembly. "All Syrians will lose."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also told the General Assembly that UN monitors in Syria were shot at as they tried to make their way to a village reported to have suffered the most recent in a string of massacres Wednesday. Mr. Ban said none of the monitors was injured, but he said they were also unable to reach their destination, a rural village called Mazraat al-Qubair.
Locals reported that 80 villagers were killed – some, including women and children, by being burned in their homes. Some regional experts say the massacres are likely the work of the Shabiha militia, a paramilitary group created in the 1970s to carry out the Assads’ dirty work.
The multiplying massacres appear to be having an impact in Moscow. Even as Annan was laying out his plan for a contact group to the Security Council, some Russian officials were sounding more open to a transition plan that would include Assad’s departure from power.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters that Moscow is not opposed to a “Yemen-style” political transition in Syria, with the caveat that it could only work if agreed to by Syrians and not enforced from outside the country.
"This is not a question for us, it is a question for the Syrian political forces and society," he said.
The US secretary of State, who met in Istanbul Thursday with a group of countries not including Russia and China to discuss Syria, has dispatched her Syria envoy, Fred Hof, to Moscow to meet with foreign ministry officials Friday.
Annan’s idea of a high-level “contact group” on Syria aims to halt the drift towards entrenched opposing camps of international powers, and to breathe new life into Annan’s moribund six-point peace plan. But one potential sticking point to the new “contact group” idea is that the former UN chief foresees including all countries with influence in Syria in the group – and that means Iran.
US officials are making it clear that they are not keen on the idea of formally involving Iran in discussions of Syria, however. Earlier in the week, when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov proposed holding an international conference on Syria that would include Iran, Secretary Clinton was unenthusiastic to say the least. “It’s a little hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad regime’s assault on its people,” she said.