Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad addresses his supporters during a surprise appearance at a rally in Umayyad Square, Damascus. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, January 18, 2011 defended Russia's trade with Syria amid growing controversy over a mysterious shipment that reportedly delivered a supply of arms to Damascus Image Credit: Gulf News archive

Two things have recently happened, both regionally and internationally, which will undoubtedly influence the course of events in Syria rather dramatically in the weeks ahead. One is Saudi Arabia’s decision to stop leading from behind, as it had done in the Arab League since the uprising began in Syria in mid-March 2011. The other is an apparent shift in Russia’s policy towards the country, after 10 months of steadfast support for the Damascus government.

For nearly one year, the Saudis had delegated Qatar to take the lead in applying pressure on Syria, with a brief exception last August, when King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz came out with a direct appeal to the people of Syria and withdrew his ambassador from Damascus. Over the past 10 days, however, Saudi Arabia went 10 steps further than what the Syrians expected, raising the tone in diplomatic discourse, implementing sanctions against Damascus, withdrawing its citizens from the Arab League observer mission, and then making sure that the mission is suspended altogether last Saturday.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal even met with members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) in Cairo, and Riyadh is toying with the idea of extending recognition to the coalition of opposition figures as ‘a representative’ of the Syrian people — but not ‘the representative’. Much of this is more about Iran than Syria, after the Iranians recently threatened to block transit through the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil transportation route, infuriating both Riyadh and Washington. And if Iran was going to continue supporting the Syrian regime, then Saudi Arabia was certainly going to back anybody who stands in its way, whether it is the SNC or any credible opposition group that can deliver on the Syrian street.

The second major development is Russia welcoming the Arab League initiative, which calls for democratic elections, a new Syrian Constitution, and a cabinet of national unity that represents the opposition, created not by President Bashar Al Assad, but by his deputy, Farouk Al Shar’a. Russia has noted the change of heart in Riyadh and wants to ride it, rather than block it, realising how fundamental Saudi Arabia is to pan-Arab consent for any solution to the Syrian crisis. The League’s initiative, which was immediately rejected by Damascus, does not call for Al Assad to step down. What it asks for is Al Assad to ‘delegate power’ to Al Shar’a, explicitly for the task of forming a government. Russian endorsement of the initiative, which coincided with a visit by Assistant US Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman to Moscow, raised alarm in Damascus. Many feared that a back channel deal was being hammered out by the Americans and Russians, at the expense of the Syrian government. The Russians have also called for the creation of such a cabinet, with real opposition figures from the Coordination Committees, rather than regime-friendly ones, and dismantling the Baath Party’s monopoly over power, which has lasted since 1963.

On the Arab League initiative, Russia and Saudi Arabia apparently see eye-to-eye, although Russia is still opposed to a military strike, more sanctions or an arms embargo on Syria. All other options, as far as Moscow is concerned, are on the table. Neither Moscow nor Riyadh are saying anything about Al Assad stepping down, but gradually relinquishing some of his powers first to Al Shar’a, and then to a democratically elected Prime Minister, who certainly would not be a member of the Baath. Russia’s official news agency Itar-Tass also quoted Mikhail Margelov, a top Kremlin aide and envoy, saying that “Russia could do no more for Syria,” after using its veto at the UN last October. Meaning, a new UN Resolution based on the League initiative might pass in the upper echelons of Moscow.

Today, the UN will meet to issue a new resolution against Syria, based on the League initiative. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might also attend, adding further pressure on the Russians to yield to any resolution against Syria.

Moscow will probably not veto a resolution that condemns violence both from the Syrian street against the authorities, and vice-versa. They will continue applying political pressure on Syrians to accept the initiative, hoping that they will eventually agree, just as they agreed to the Arab League Protocol, and the observer mission, after originally refusing both suggestions. In addition to the political and security crisis, after all, Syria is facing a serious economic crisis, which will influence how the regime operates in the weeks to come, as the US dollar threatens to jump to a groundbreaking 100 Syrian pounds.

This would mean social and financial chaos, not only for the government but also for ordinary Syrians. The business community would never want to hear of it, and much of the private sector has already declared suspension of its activities, or is about to declare bankruptcy. Syrian businessmen are furious at the exchange rate reaching 73 Syrian pounds to the dollar. The minute Russia comes out with a position that is slightly more aggressive towards Damascus, the pound will plummet further, rather dramatically.

Perhaps then, the Russians believe, the Syrians would accept the League initiative, which they see as pretty similar to the Yemeni initiative, which was a win-win scenario both for the Yemeni opposition and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. If they are unable to convince the Syrians to change, they will apply even more pressure, arguing that real reform and a soft exodus is less costly than a UN resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.

Russia still believes that it can democratise the Syrian government from within, securing a soft landing for Syria and an ‘honourable exit’ for the Baathists, who have been Moscow’s allies since 1963. They have already talked with opposition figures like Hassan Abdul Azeem and Haitham Mana’a, and see the Arab League initiative as the only way forward for Syria, despite strong Syrian objections, for now.

The only places capable of pushing for change, they believe, are Cairo — being the headquarters of the Arab League — Riyadh, New York and Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to keep it that way, making sure that neither the Turks nor the Americans, get a real say in how Syria develops in the months ahead.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus, Syria.