Driving down the Mezzeh Autorstrade in the heart of the Syrian capital, one finds a gigantic Russian flag covering the main residential building. A little further down the road, at the Umayyad Square, a big sign reads: “Thank you Russia.” These are sincere gestures by ordinary pro-regime Syrians who feel that they owe Russia a lot, for using its veto at the Security Council in October, and for firmly standing behind their government since the crisis began in mid-March, 2011. Elsewhere, on the outskirts of Damascus, angry anti-regime demonstrators are burning the Russian flag and chanting, “Down with Russia.” Both streets — the pro-regime and opposition one — seemingly fail to understand what Russia wants from Syria and why it has stood firmly behind the Syrian government — so far.
Contrary to what many people believe, the biggest pressure currently being applied on Damascus is not from the Arab League, or from the US, or Europe. It is from Russia, their main ally. The Russians, many in Syria believe, have been mandated by the international community to find a solution to the crisis. They have been through this before and know that one-party rule and a police state cannot last forever. The Syrian state needs to be democratised from within, they claim, like what happened to them after collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than being dismantled completely, as in the case of Iraq in 2003. This, of course, is music to the ears of Syrian officialdom. The Russians are worried that if the regime falls in Syria, more pressing than presidential elections would be fundamental issues like who is going to traffic police on the streets, who is going to collect garbage, who is going to control the borders, who is going to administer jails, and who is going to handle the economy? They happen to know the Syrian scene inside out; they know who matters in Syria, and what buttons to push to make change happen. Russia has a clear vision for what it wants from Syria, whereas the Americans — apparently — do not. The US has asked Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad to step down, but to date; it has provided no roadmap as to how this can be done, and what the transition period would look like. Moscow, however, is seemingly more in the picture on how it wants Syria to look three, six, and 12 months from now.
For starters, Russia wants to maintain its political and military influence in the Arab World, via Syria. Meaning, they are more interested in Syria itself, with which they have had strong relations since 1957, rather than the Syrian regime. The Syrian port of Tartus, for example, is the only base of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea. What Russia worries about is losing that influence to the Americans and the Turks who, it believes, will take the lion’s share of the spoils, if the Syrian regime falls — completely ejecting Russia from the Middle East at large. The Russians will continue to back the Syrians so long as Syria offers them something tangible in return, and the minute they feel that their fortunes are diminishing with Syrian officialdom, they too will start looking the other way. Russian policy-makers have been very impressed by the Yemeni Solution, which produced a win-win scenario for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Yemeni opposition. It still believes that such an outcome can be achieved for Syria, and is laying the final touches on a “Russian Initiative” which doesn’t necessarily mean replacing Al Assad before presidential elections in 2014. Before such an initiative sees the light, Russia wants Al Assad to do the following: 1) Dismantle the Baath Party monopoly on power through an upcoming Baath Party Congress 2) Introduce a new Constitution 3) Begin a power-sharing process, no matter how sluggish, with the Syrian opposition. The Baathists would give up power, if asked to do so by Al Assad, who would need to convince them that this is the best way forward for Syria. If they are forced out of power — something along the lines of de-Baathification in Iraq — then they would turn violent, and probably resort to arms to defend themselves. The transition — as far as Russia is concerned — needs to be orderly, neat, and more importantly, taken up willingly by the Baathists themselves. Russians feel that they can make that happen, only via Al Assad.
A new Constitution is already in the works, which drops Article 8, a controversial 1973 article that says that the Baath Party “is the leader of state and society”. Those changes would go hand-in-hand, according to the Russians, with a cabinet of national unity that includes members of the opposition. Consultations are currently underway for a new cabinet, replacing the nine-month government of Adel Safar. The idea is either to name an opposition figure as Prime Minister, or keep a Baathist at the job (until Article 8 is formally abolished) and give the opposition the job of Deputy Prime Minister. Reportedly, certain figures in the Coordination Committee, a broad coalition of opposition figures that includes secularists and Kurds, will be invited to join the new government. The Coordination Committee’s two heavyweight leaders, Hasan Abdul Azeem and Haitham Manaa, have already said that they would not join such a government, although other figures are toying with the idea — if presented to them as part of a “democracy package” that comes with real Russian guarantees. Many of them have been invited to Moscow, specifically for this purpose. These figures have given up hope of bringing down the regime altogether and are advocates of democratizing it from within — just like the Russians are thinking. In his recent speech at Damascus University, Al Assad acknowledged existence of the opposition, and said that he was willing to bring them onboard. Regardless of how that resounded with the opposition itself, since he slammed opposition figures talking to the regime “under the table,” it was the first time since 1963 that a President has admitted that there is such a thing called “opposition” in Syria.
Will the demonstrators back down, given that they listen neither to the Russians or to Syrian officialdom or to the Coordination Committees? They have been calling for nothing less than complete regime change, and feel that all these changes are cosmetic, aimed at buying time for the Syrian government. Most foreign players have gotten carried away with the Syrian opposition, forgetting that it commands very little influence on the Syrian street and cannot end the demonstrations, even if it wanted. The presidential speech, the new cabinet, and the upcoming Baath Party Congress that will be held in early February — all have Russia’s fingerprints. Russia, however, is still pushing for more, feeling that Syrian authorities have been slow — to say the least — in implementing real political and economic reform. In order for them to help Syria, the Syrian government has to first start helping itself. The main challenge remains; how can the Syrians — and Russians — restore calm to the Syrian street? That is a subject to which Moscow, to date, does not have an answer to, and certainly, nor does the Syrian government.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus, Syria.