Syrian solution lies in Putin's hands

Articles and op-ed

Bob Carr

Published in: The Australian

25 June 2012

The world community is saying the right things on Syria: there must be a ceasefire and political talks between government and opposition. This was reflected in the statement last week by presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, which called for "an immediate cessation of all violence" and for a political process to halt the conflict.

Meanwhile, there is a fatalism about the slide to civil war and nothing I heard in Turkey and four Arab countries offered hope of a ceasefire, especially given the deadlock in the UN.

Under the overarching Kofi Annan plan — ceasefire and political talks — it is time for the world to focus more sharply on what seems the only immediate viable solution: a lead role for Russia.

Yesterday, I announced additional Australian sanctions. But as far as we can tell the Assad regime's core, especially its security forces, remains united. It has long been stocked up for war and has the capacity to hang on for a long run against internal opposition. As the regime sees things, it is killing terrorists.

In Istanbul, I met the new head of the Syrian National Council and a group of supporters. They welcomed the Australian decision to expel Syrian diplomats. At the end of the meeting I made to the delegation the obvious cautionary point: the world sees the Syrian opposition as deeply divided and unable to win over the bulk of the Syrian people.

The military opposition inside the country can hurt the regime but it too is divided. Syrians are desperate for change but so far not enough are convinced that the current opposition can deliver it.

It is hardly required to repeat the arguments against a military intervention like that in Libya. To start with, Syria is militarily strong, especially in air defence. Some believe the US, while not able to take any options off the table, has no appetite for another Middle Eastern war. Nor has Europe, and China and Russia would veto the Security Council motion to mandate it.

Which brings us to Russia and the model for political change presented by Yemen.

Let me say upfront, the Yemen-Syria comparison is flawed.

Like Yemen, Syria has a long-standing dictatorial regime, an increasingly unpopular leader and a revolt. Unlike Yemen, Syria presents no signs of a split in the regime. Bashar al-Assad's leadership retains some support. The Syrian opposition shows no signs of being satisfied with removal of the leading figure, as the opposition in Yemen was, and they want much more substantial change. Crucially, Syria's most important external supporter, Russia, has, so far, not shown any signs of putting pressure on Assad to walk off the stage and see a successor offer negotiation with regime opponents.

If Russia reconsiders, however, it will give itself a reputation for leadership beyond the promotion of Russian national interest.

This must, of course, be under the overarching responsibility of the Security Council.

Russian support would be indispensable to the departure of Assad.

There may be an initial transition period — beginning with Assad devolving power and ending with his departure from the country with guaranteed immunity. Some reports suggest five individuals in the Syrian administration who could assume power heading an interim administration. Such a government would be charged with drafting a new constitution and putting it to a referendum. It would produce a timetable for elections, within a year or, at an outer limit, two.

Such a transition road map, in line with the transition in Yemen, would add enormously to Russia's credibility. Russia may still see this as a red line, one they will not allow to be crossed, but this may become harder as bloodshed mounts. Such a solution would distinguish Russia on the diplomatic stage and still sustain its legitimate interests, subject ultimately to the view of the Syrian people at a free election.

We should not ignore China's potential to play a positive role in such a diplomatic outcome.

This would be the most effective way to achieve the objectives of the Annan plan.

The five permanent members of the Security Council have an obligation to show leadership on this humanitarian crisis. An obligation — and for Russia, with its aspirations for global leadership, an opportunity.

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