DAMASCUS – The Russians have been talking a lot about a Yemeni solution for Syria, without going into too much detail. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even said it publicly, twice, in less than a week, impressed by the win-win deal between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opponents.
Sources close to Moscow say that a “Russian Initiative” will be announced for Syria by late January, modeled after the Yemeni one.
The initiative, apparently, will be the brainchild of both the Americans and Russians, but it will be packaged and marketed as a Russian deal, from A to Z.
The United States does not want to involve itself directly in Syrian
affairs at a micro-level, since it is too busy with the 2012 presidential elections and afraid that any outright US support would harm the Syrian street.
Washington, apparently, and much of the European Union, have given the Russians carte blanche to come up with a solution for Syria, in coordination with the Arab League.
Russia would thereby guarantee that American interests in Syria would be preserved, vis-a-vis Syria’s relationship with non-state players like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and its commitments to the peace process.
They know the Syrian scene inside out, after all, more so than the Americans or Europeans, thanks to 50 years of daily hands-on contact with Syrian officials. They know who matters in the Syrian scene and can push the right buttons – if they want – to make change happen. They also have much at stake at ending the stalemate in Syria, because it safeguards their own interests in the Middle East. If the Syrian regime falls, the Russians are certain, then so will their influence in the Arab world.
In order for this initiative to see the light, the Russians need something tangible in their hands to ward off critics of the Syrian government and prove that Russia can deliver on Syrian affairs.
However, they have made little progress to date, apart from a feeble political party law that has failed to produce real and attractive parties for Syrian activists fed up with 48 years of Ba’ath Party rule.
Violence and killing have continued since unrest broke out early last year; so has the stubbornness of Syria’s Ba’athists not to give up – or even share – power.
Russia is unimpressed with how things are developing internally in Syria. Serious Russian discontent might explain why suddenly the Syrians seem to be in a hurry, setting three important dates in the next four weeks that aim at meeting Russian demands.
Reportedly, the Russians asked for three things first before laying out their initiative for Syria:
1. A new constitution that does away with the Ba’ath Party monopoly.
2. A Ba’ath Party congress to lay the political groundwork for post-Ba’ath Syria.
3. A cabinet of national unity that includes heavyweights from the Syrian opposition.
The new constitution would reportedly be out by mid-February, and Article 8 – which designates the Ba’ath Party as “leader of state and society” – will be omitted. The Ba’ath party congress will be held in the first week of February.
Talks are already underway with the Coordination Council, an opposition coalition that is headed by veteran opposition figure Hasan Abdul-Azeem, to take part in the new government.
The cabinet, surely, must be headed by a member of the opposition and not a Ba’athist, as customarily has happened since 1963. It might see the light, media sources are saying, before the end of January.
The new constitution will reportedly change the mechanism of how the prime minister is selected. Since 1973, every premier has been appointed directly – and dismissed – by the president of the republic. He had vast executive authority but no political clout or influence whatsoever, although he was given a ceremonial post on the ruling Regional Command of the Ba’ath Party.
That has been changed, and a new prime minister will be named by whichever party wins a majority in parliament – as was the case before the Ba’athists came to power in 1963.
He/she will answer to the chamber of deputies, which can appoint or dismiss a prime minister at will, without resorting to the president. Additionally, some of the president’s powers will be reduced and given to the prime minister – which is another pressing Russian prerequisite.
Among other changes in the new charter is doing away with the Regional Command’s authority to name a presidential candidate.
From now on, a presidential candidate will need nomination from 20% of members of parliament (which means 50 out of 250 deputies). A minimum of two candidates need to emerge for presidential elections to take place. It is unclear yet what the presidential term will be, although independents and opposition figures are pushing for five years, rather than seven, renewable only once rather than open-ended, as the current system says.
The new system, in theory, would be a parliamentary democracy, and it would lay the backbone of Syrian politics in the upcoming period – perhaps leading to presidential elections in 2012-2013.
If these changes do materialize and don’t get aborted by hardliners, several opposition figures might agree to join the cabinet – if such a move is presented to them as part of a comprehensive “democracy package” that has Russia’s fingerprints, and guarantees, all over it.
They would be risking their names and careers, but a real democratic outcome would be worth the trial. They need to be given credible assurances, however, that the state will be transformed dramatically, in fact beyond recognition, from a police state into a democracy, where freedom of speech, conduct and assembly are guaranteed by law. The current system, after all, cannot accept a democratically elected prime minister from the opposition if he speaks his mind and is popular on the street.
Neither Syria’s state-run press nor the intelligence services, and certainly not the Ba’athists, would easily accept such a dramatic change that does away with how they have been doing things for years. Talks are underway, however, with the Coordination Council, headed in Syria by Hasan Abdul Azeem and in the diaspora by internationally respect human-rights activist Haitham Manaa.
He has been earmarked for the premiership, although he has neither accepted nor declined the job. He might accept – as a part of a democracy package – but certainly not with the current status quo of Prime Minister Adel Safar, which would be political suicide for any serious politician, whether an independent or an opposition figure.
The Coordination Committee, composed of Arab nationalist parties, Nasserist politicians, Kurds and seculars, is believed to be the all-time favorite of Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi – who is an Arab nationalist at heart and in practice.
It includes respected names like Hussein al-Odat, for example, a veteran Ba’athist with an exceptionally unblemished record. Most of its members have spent their careers in and out of jail.
The Russians, who have invited the Coordination Committee for talks in Moscow this January, clearly favor this camp rather than the Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC).
In late 2011, they welcomed a delegation from the SNC, but those talks ended in failure. The Russians were pushing them to sit down for talks with the regime, but the SNC insisted that the only dialogue they would have with Syrian authorities was on how to hand over power.
The Coordination Committee, however, is coming across as more pragmatic, willing to talk of sharing of power with the authorities as a stepping stone towards democratizing the regime from within.
Having said that, the Coordination Committee is not as influential at a grassroots level as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of the SNC. Meaning, if such a deal does see the light – and is backed strongly by Russia – it still would not appease the angry Syrian street, which is demanding nothing less than total regime change.
Last week, the SNC signed a rapprochement with the Coordination Committee, which quickly collapsed – and was in fact torn apart by members of the SNC. They claimed that its president, Bourhan Ghalioun, had signed the deal without consulting with the SNC’s executive council. Twenty-four hours after its signing, the rapprochement collapsed, thereby failing, yet again, at unifying the Syrian opposition.
Will all of these solutions ever see the light, given the amount of anger and mistrust on the Syrian street, the radicalization of Syrian authorities, and the adamant refusal of opposition figures within the SNC to endorse such a deal?
Much of its success depends on four things: an end to all the killing and all military operations; serious Russian pressure; the readiness of the Syrian state to let go before it is too late; and the upcoming report of the Arab League Observers, which is due to be presented this weekend.
If the report comes out “soft” on Syrian officialdom – or divides the blame 60-40 between them and “armed groups” on the Syrian street, this might bring a deal with someone like Manaa closer to reality. He would need to be a real prime minister, with real powers, authority, and following.
The cabinet would also need real opposition figures to lend their name and reputation to it, not regime-friendly “soft” opposition figures who are taken seriously by nobody – certainly not on the Syrian street but also not in Russia or the West.
And Syria’s new system would have to be a democratic one where accountability, justice and constitutionalism prevails – something that Syria has not seen in nearly 50 years.
A strong-worded League report that blames the Syrian government in full for what is happening in Syria would make it impossible for anybody who takes himself seriously to accept the job of premier, if he is going to be become another Adel Safar.
Russia pushed strongly for the league’s observers to drown a German proposal that international observers come to Syria, hoping that the League would “Arabize” the Syria case and help undo the damage done to the image of the Syrian regime in 10 months of violence, as a stepping stone towards launching Russia’s “democracy package”.
Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.