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Syrian solution lies in Putin’s hands

June 25, 2012

An op-ed I wrote, published in today’s Australian:

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 international 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 is too 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.

6 Comments
  1. John Mountbatten permalink
    June 25, 2012 1:48 pm

    Thoughtful & persuasive – as usual.

  2. Fardin Nikjoo permalink
    June 25, 2012 2:34 pm

    About Russia and Putin, nothing further except her worriness about the NATO. The main question for Putin is that; what has Russia left with in the region except Syria and Iran? And so long as she has no answer to the question; I won’t see a Putin ready to follow your advice, Minister Carr.

    • Fardin Nikjoo permalink
      June 25, 2012 2:37 pm

      Please chenge ‘she’ to ‘he’. I was unable to do it after posting. regards

  3. June 25, 2012 8:20 pm

    FM Carr is absolutely right – Russia has the chance here to lead responsibly and build international goodwill if they lead with a humanitarian solution. Failing that, we must ensure refugee receiving countries are financially assisted and adequately resourced to ensure security for those in the camps (and prevent conflict contagion).

  4. June 27, 2012 3:22 am

    But isn’t Assad Russia’s man in Syria? With whom would the Russians replace him other than another member of the largely effective ruling bloc that he heads? Does the West really want to buttress and solidify Syrias’ position within Russia’s sphere of influence (which, granted, seems at first glance preferable to the Persian alternative)? Wouldn’t West be better off for the time being curtailing its encouragement (and assistance?) to an Assad opposition whose state of rebellion is the prime cause for the bloodshed being blamed on a regime that feels it is at most (as you say) “killing terrorists?” Finally, I wonder if the West has already in effect broken the Syrian merchandise, leaving it liable under the Pottery Barn Rule, so cogently cited by Gen. Colin Powell.

  5. Martin Spencer permalink
    June 27, 2012 11:28 pm

    Russia has a massive conflict of interest and would have to abstain from voting in any other sensible deliberative body (parliament, a company board, playground discussion group). Why doesn’t the UNSC write legislation that governs intervention. The individual interventions would then be decided by the ICC interpreting that legislation. The result would be transparency.

    No other even semi-developed country would put up with such an amateurish structure. Why do we put up with it on a global scale.

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