Russia is seeking to enlist Iran in a bid to engineer a political transition in Syria, a move that drew a hostile U.S. reaction even as the Obama administration asks for more pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Russian move comes on the heels of reports on al Jazeera television, citing activists, of new massacres by Assad’s forces. The reports said at least 140 Syrians were killed, some of them women and children, including 78 in Hama. Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said the reports were “baseless” and that terrorists killed nine women and children outside of the city. Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, ordered the city leveled in February 1982 to crush a Sunni Muslim uprising, killing at least 10,000 people.
The possibility of recruiting Iran, one of Assad’s main backers, to assist in efforts to end the violence and ease him out of power was floated as Kofi Annan, the architect of a failed United Nations April truce, prepared to address the UN today about ways to revive his peace plan or pursue next steps.
The entry of Syria’s biggest backer, Shiite Muslim Iran, to a struggle that now pits a Sunni-led uprising against Assad’s Alawite minority would alienate the U.S. and Sunni Arab powers that are calling for more sweeping economic sanctions.
It’s “a little hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad regime’s assault on its people,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Enlisting Iran also would add a problematic new dimension to the international negotiations on the Islamic Republic’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
“Could it add a new element for linkage, or does it risk crossing wires?” Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a telephone interview.
From the point of view of newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin, though, enlisting the Iranians could help provide some diplomatic cover for efforts to preserve Alawite rule and protect Russia’s interests with countries that matter, such as Turkey and Iran, Danin said.
With Annan’s cease-fire plan stumbling as nations seek an alternative that doesn’t include military action, the former secretary general will field questions from the UN Security Council and the 193-nation General Assembly about the future of a mission of 300 unarmed UN observers amid growing concern that some may be killed.
In an effort to salvage his initiative, Annan will propose forming an international group to advance discussions on a political transition, according to three UN diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The details of his latest pitch are still vague, the officials said.
Russia, which had supported Annan’s plan, proposed yesterday that Iran should be part of a coalition of nations seeking a political settlement in Syria.
For the U.S., that’s a non-starter. Clinton said she will see Annan in Washington tomorrow to discuss next steps, “including our shared efforts to encourage Russia and China to use their influence to end the bloodshed and work with the international community in promoting a transition.”
Until she’s had those meetings and consulted with “those most directly involved,” Clinton said, she “won’t prejudge whether we will hold a conference and who would be invited to the conference.”
Clinton met yesterday in Istanbul with foreign ministers from the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries to consider possible moves in light of Russia’s push to include Iran in talks on Syria, according to a State Department official.
During the meeting, which took place on the eve of a counterterrorism conference, Clinton said that aid to the Syrian opposition must be better coordinated, according to the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. Participants agreed to create a “coordination group” overseeing opposition support, according to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
The Syria talks Russia is proposing initially wouldn’t include representatives of the Assad government. They would include the UN’s five veto-wielding Security Council members -- the U.S, Russia, France, the U.K. and China -- the European Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Arab League states, Turkey and Iran.
“It’s essential to call a meeting of states that have real influence over the various opposition groups,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Beijing yesterday. “We must all pile pressure on the Syrian side.”
The leaders of China and Russia today called for peaceful resolutions to the uprising in Syria and the showdown over Iran’s nuclear development. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, said in a statement after a meeting in Beijing that resolving the dispute with Iran by force is unacceptable. The SCO also said it supports UN resolutions that have called for a political solution to the revolt in Syria.
Fight for Survival
The U.S. is dispatching a delegation, led by Fred Hof, the State Department’s special envoy to the Syrian opposition, to Moscow this week to discuss a common approach to nudging Assad aside. The goal is to replace the 46-year-old leader with someone acceptable to both sides in the conflict, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Assad is fighting for the survival of his Alawite clan’s four-decade hold on power. While more than 70 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni, Assad and the ruling elite belong to an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam. The Alawites stand to lose privileges, property, and even their lives, should his regime fall.
The Obama administration, still opposed to military intervention in Syria, has been pressing for the UN Security Council to cut the regime’s economic lifelines, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner evoked the possibility of action in Syria under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
That empowers the Security Council to mandate sanctions or authorize military means to enforce its will.
“Absent meaningful compliance by the regime with the Annan plan, that is the direction in which we are soon headed,” Geithner said yesterday in Washington.
While Russia is signaling that it no longer views Assad’s position as tenable, it’s given no indication it will back attempts to impose UN sanctions on one of its major arms customers. The Syrian port of Tartus is also Russia’s only naval resupply base in the Mediterranean Sea.
At the Security Council, Russia twice vetoed Western-drafted resolutions seeking to punish Assad. Given the latest push to include rather than antagonize Putin over Syria, there is little appetite for pushing for a third time a binding measure that Russia may block, according to two UN diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity because talks on the matter are private.
While for the first time Russia sees a change of government in Syria as possible, it remains adamant that the outcome cannot be imposed from outside, as Russian officials argue it was in Libya.
One option Russia can offer Assad is exile.
“Assad will only go if Russia tells him it can’t do anything for him anymore and offers security guarantees for him, his family and entourage,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst with the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. “Russia doesn’t control Assad, it can only bring influence to bear on him.”