Can the Russians really bring peace to Syria?
With 3,000 Syrians dead, Russia plays peace broker - but don’t hold your breath for Assad to step down
WHAT’S HAPPENED?It has been revealed that a Russian presidential envoy is due to meet one of President Assad's personal advisers today in an attempt to broker a peace deal between the current regime and the country's large but fragmented opposition. With the Syrian regime seemingly immune to diplomatic pressure from the West, and with military intervention off the cards, it has fallen to Syria's regional allies to bring an end to the ongoing violence that has claimed nearly 3,000 Syrian lives.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?The attitude of these countries is far from straightforward. Russia has refused to join the West in calling for Assad to step down, and is instead insisting on dialogue and reforms. The presidential envoy, Mikhail Margelov, has cited concerns over Assad being replaced by more extremist elements, while Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has echoed the Syrian regime's line, saying that some of the Syrian dissidents are "clearly extremists, some could even be described as terrorists".
Furthermore, Russia's numerous defence contracts with Syria give it a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Medvedev admitted that Russian interest in a brokered deal "lies also in the fact that Syria is a friendly country with which we have numerous economic and political ties".
Another possible key player could be Iran, who last week finally broke with Syria's "foreign conspiracy" line and called for "talks" between Assad and opposition groups. "A military solution is never the right solution," said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, believes this could just be posturing. "Iran have an image to worry about," he told The First Post. "They don't want to look like complete thugs. But will they take concrete steps? That's a different story. Will they tell Hezbollah to stop backing the regime or block off the various smuggling routes across the border? I don't think Iran has moved decisively yet, it seems to be hedging its bets."
Joshi believes the "key state" is Turkey. "It has a long border with Syria and has become increasingly influential over the years, forming not quite an alliance, but a friendship. Crucially, it holds economic leverage over Syria."
With the collapse of Syria's tourism and foreign investment sectors and EU sanctions against Syrian oil due to come into effect mid-November, economic sanctions imposed by countries such as Turkey would be especially effective.
As Julien Barnes-Dacey of Control Risks told the The First Post last month, Syria's economy is "crucial to the regime's standing. Once that plummets and they lose the support of the merchant class, staying in power becomes trickier".
But the possibility of decisive action to challenge the Assad regime is complicated by a lack of consensus in the Turkish government. "I think some people in Turkey would like to see Assad stick around," says Joshi, "while some people would like a new regime built around the old guard, so there is continuity, but with change. And of course some people would like to see a whole new ruling party."
WHAT NEXT?Nearly all of Syria's Middle Eastern neighbours share Russia's concerns that unseating Assad could destabilise the region, both politically and economically.
"We need to build a regional consensus that allows people to see that transition is the way to go," says Joshi. "Countries such as Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all need to be shown that there is no interest for them to ensure Assad's survival." Only then will there be the will to challenge the Syrian regime with the necessary force. ·
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