Russia has taken a big step forward in mending fences with the Arab League with the drafting of an Action Plan for the Russian-Arab Forum [RAF]. The RAF has been languishing even as Russia’s ties with Saudi Arabia and Qatar plunged in the wake of the conflict in Syria and many uncertainties appeared in the MIddle East with the advent of the Arab Spring.
The Action Plan affirms that there are no contradictions of a fundamental character in Russia’s ties with the Arab world when it comes to the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Palestinian problem or the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free of nuclear weapons and “international cooperation in the sphere of peaceful nuclear energy.”
It is yet another indication that the Syrian conflict is moving toward political negotiations and Russia hopes to play a pivotal role in the process that the RAF held its first session in Moscow on Wednesday. The joint statement issued after the meeting underscores a high degree of convergence with regard to the Syrian situation.
Thus, the two sides rejected foreign intervention and affirmed their respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and unity; more importantly, they touched on the modalities of “transition” in Syria.
They suggested that a political process should begin following an immediate ceasefire, which would “lead to forming a transitional governing body with full executive powers to steer the transitional period and transfer the power within an agreed time framework.” Of course, “all the Syrians” should participate in the political process.
Interestingly, the joint statement cites the Geneva communique of June 2012 as the cornerstone of peace process. (Russia has consistently argued that the Syrian regime should be a participant in the peace process.)
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after the RAF meeting that Moscow is willing to host an intra-Syrian dialogue. The Syrian FM Walid al-Mualem is scheduled to visit Moscow on Monday and a visit by the Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib to Russia in March is also on the cards.
Things seem to be looking up. The MFA in Moscow has been tweeting good tidings: “Today [Wednesday] we heard that there are signs of a move towards dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.”
Furthermore, the MFA tweets attributed to Lavrov the following remarks: “We [Russia] have done a great deal to convince the Syrian leadership to cooperate with the Arab league on the basis of its initiative.” Again: “Russia has supported the idea of sending Arab League observers to Syria.” Yet again, interestingly: “It is important that the readiness the Syrian opposition leaders have shown for dialogue is reciprocated by the government.”
Lavrov strongly nudged the Syrian regime in the presence of the Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Arabi (who was in Moscow on Wednesday for the RAF meeting): “The need to start a dialogue becomes more and more clear. Neither side can allow itself to bet on a military settlement as this is a path to nowhere, a path to self-destruction.”
Significantly, Egyptian FM Mohamed Kamel Amr attended the RAF meeting. This is Amr’s second visit to Moscow in the past two months. Egypt is set to assume the rotating presidency of the Arab League.
Attention now shifts to Rome where on coming Thursday and Friday, the countries clamoring for “regime change” in Syria will meet — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. This will be US secretary of state John Kerry’s first major involvement with the Syrian question.
With the peace doves straining to spread wings and take to the Moscow skies, the meeting in Rome needs to ponder over the appropriateness of continued beating of the war drum. The prospect of the US arming Syrian rebels seems even more improbable today.
Having said that, notwithstanding tactical retreats, the US strategy hasn’t fundamentally changed. The immediate priority will be to work toward forming a transitional government in Syria, which is not “anti-Western”, and which Washington hopes to influence.
Meanwhile, US would hope that the Syrian government forces and radical islamist fighters would degrade each other and get weakened by the day. From the US viewpoint, the post-Bashar al-Assad era may have begun already, although the spectre of al-Qaeda instils doubts about hastening the dynamic on the ground.
The heart of the matter is that the Syrian crisis has already shifted the regional strategic balance. The rupture in Hamas’s ties with Damascus, eruption of Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions, isolation of Iran in the Arab world — these have shown seamless potentials for “managing” the Syrian crisis on a broad spectrum with a view to calibrating other regional issues such as the Iran nuclear issue, Palestinian problem, Israeli intransigence, etc.
Again, on an even broader scale, Syrian conflict did provide the alibi for the deployment of the US’s missile defence system in Turkey, where the real purpose is to aim at other targets.
– February 21, 2013