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Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, said today that he is in Damascus and Moscow this week to try to revive a peace plan for Syria that was shelved this summer. However, rebel gains on the ground make it unlikely that the plan will go anywhere without more concessions to the Syrian opposition.
Russia is standing by its red line – that the plan not push President Bashar al-Assad from power. Meanwhile, the opposition still wants to bar current members of the Syrian regime from participating in a transitional government; the current proposal doesn’t appear to contain any such provision, the Associated Press reports.
What has changed is the opposition's strength: In recent months, it has captured swaths of territory, acquired better weaponry, and organized itself into a true fighting force, all allowing it to pose a legitimate challenge to the Syrian Army. The progress makes it unlikely the opposition will accept a proposal that allows former regime officials to participate in a new government if it rejected such a plan previously, when it was considerably weaker.
Mr. Brahimi was vague about how the plan might be amended this time around. CNN reports that during an appearance on Syrian state-run television today, he said only that, "The Geneva communique had all that is needed for a road map to end the crisis in Syria within few months."
The shift in the opposition's fortunes has led to a corresponding shift in Russia's own position. While Russia, where Brahimi will be later this week, was previously a steadfast supporter of the Assad regime and refused to entertain any proposals for a post-Assad Syria, Moscow now seems "resigned" to the possibility, the AP says.
Reuters reports that Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich stated plainly that Mr. Assad's departure could not be treated as a precondition for talks this time around, but did not insist that the possibility of his removal be off the table.
"The biggest disagreement ... is that one side thinks Assad should leave at the start of the process – that is the US position, and the other thinks his departure should be a result of the process – that would be the Russian position," Dmitry Trenin, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told Reuters.
But Trenin said battlefield gains made by the Syrian rebels were narrowing the gap between Moscow and Washington.
Mr. Lukashevich said, contrary to speculation, there is not yet a concrete plan for resolving the Syrian conflict. "In our talks with Mr. Brahimi and with our American colleagues, we are trying to feel a way out of this situation on the basis of our common plan of action that was agreed in Geneva in June," he said, according to Reuters.
Officials have been vague about what is on the table as a series of high-level officials meet. Brahimi arrived in Damascus on Dec. 24 and Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Makdad was in Moscow today, possibly meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia's envoy for Middle East affairs, Reuters reports.
CNN says that the Geneva plan was able to find some common ground between Russia and China on one side and France, Britain, the US, and Turkey on the other. That was, however, partially due to the fact that it didn’t address question of Assad's role in a transitional government.
According to the communique, the transitional government "could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent."
Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of political risk analysis firm Cornerstone Global Associates, told Bloomberg that it is unlikely we will see a public "abandonment" of Assad because of Russia's naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with Damascus.