Russia's outreach to Syria's opposition hints at policy pivot

Russian officials will meet with two Syrian opposition members later this month, as well as UN envoy Kofi Annan, raising hopes that Moscow's support for the Syrian regime is weakening.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League for Syria Kofi Annan (c.) speaks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (r.) next to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the start of the meeting of the Action Group on Syria at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, June 30.

Russian officials will hold talks in Moscow with two key Syrian opposition leaders and United Nations envoy Kofi Annan later this month, amid signs that the Kremlin is ready to throw its weight behind Mr. Annan's revised plan for a transitional government and might even be starting to think seriously about life after Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad leaves power.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted by the official RIA-Novosti news agency as saying that the first representative, writer and opposition support Michel Kilowill, is expected to arrive later this week. The new head of the Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sieda, will visit Moscow after July 10, and Annan will come for talks around the middle of the month.

The talks with opposition figures are "important because we have to do our best to implement Kofi Annan's plan and decisions of the Geneva conference," the agency quoted Bogdanov as saying.

The Russian moves come just two days after Britain, the US, China, Russia, France, and Turkey met in Geneva and agreed to a plan that would create an interim unity government that could include "members of the present government and the opposition and other groups" that would draft a new constitution and initiate a democratic process for choosing new leadership for the country.

The spiraling conflict in Syria, which most are now calling a civil war, has killed more than 16,500 people since it began last March, according to figures from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released today. The UN has not recently published casualty estimates. 

During the Geneva talks, Russia, followed its long-standing position on the Syria crisis and insisted on the removal of language in the final resolution that might have required Mr. Assad to step aside. That led the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group endorsed by the West, to label the talks a "mockery" and vow to keep on fighting.

But Western leaders say that the resolution requires the transitional body to be formed by "mutual assent," which means the most contentious figure, Assad, will probably have to go or the body won't be formed. Assad has given no signs of stepping down from power. 

"We want Assad to take part in the process, not because we like him, but because his participation will prevent a total collapse of the regime and an all-against-all conflict," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected expert and vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow.

But he adds that "Russia is trying to engage with different actors. We've always had a complicated relationship with Assad, and we're not stuck on him, but if it's announced that he's definitely leaving his coalition will collapse – including religious minorities that rely on his regime for protection – and the military opposition will come roaring in and take power. We'd like to see reform, but it should be step-by-step, not a sudden explosion."

Russian experts argue that the Syrian opposition is far from being a unified force, and that there might be room for compromises on the shape of the transitional government that would satisfy at least enough people to give it a chance to work.

"There is a meeting of Syrian opposition forces going on in Cairo today, which aims to find a common position. We should watch what happens there," says Vladimir Sazhin, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.

"We see that it's only the Free Syrian Army that has taken a completely rejectionist point of view, and there are many other elements in the picture. Many things are possible, and the fact that Russia and the West disagree over the role of Assad shouldn't obscure the fact that we do agree on almost everything else," he says.

Some experts say that the long-running blame game between Russia and the West has probably run its course and that real opportunities are still present for East-West cooperation to prevent a long and bloody civil war in Syria.

"The negotiating process is moving and it seems that the US and Russia are seriously trying to bridge the gaps," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist for the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. "It seems like Russia is really just trying to prevent a complete collapse of the Assad regime, and would be satisfied if some Assad loyalist were part of a new government so that Moscow can rebuild its relationship with a post-Assad Syria…

"Russian diplomats are not fools, they are pragmatists," Mr. Strokan says. "They can see that the costs of hanging on to Assad are mounting, that it's causing a lot of discomfort for us. [Tuesday], for example, Human Rights Watch is going to release a really damning report on torture centers in Syria. This is really searing stuff, and it's going to be thrown in Russia's face. People will ask, all over again, why are you Russians supporting Assad? For Russia it is more and more effort-consuming and uncomfortable to keep explaining our position...

"Russian diplomats know you can't just keep saying 'nyet, nyet,' you have to move in a constructive direction. So, finally, they are starting to seriously think about life after Assad. There is more hope for some generally-acceptable negotiated solution than it may seem at this moment," he adds. 

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