‘Did he or didn’t he?’ That’s the essence of the latest back and forth dispute between American and Russian diplomatic observers, sparring over President Putin’s alleged remark to Secretary of State Kerry that the Syrian president can’t be barred from participating in the 2017 presidential elections. But what did the Russian leader really say?
Last week, business newspaper Bloomberg reported, citing two anonymous officials “familiar with the matter,” that during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow on December 14, President Putin allegedly told him that Assad cannot be barred as a candidate in the upcoming 2017 elections, adding that he “would win if he runs.”
“While Kerry didn’t agree,” Bloomberg explained, “the US is already pushing to set the terms of the 2017 ballot in ways that would reduce Assad’s chances of victory –contradicting the Obama administration’s repeated calls for the Syrian leader to leave office.”Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, for his part, responded to Bloomberg’s claims shortly after the story ran, saying that the report was inaccurate.
Commenting on the diplomatic tussle, Gevorg Mirzayan, special correspondent for respected Russian business magazine Expert, wrote that in his view, “the information provided by Bloomberg raises doubts.”
“Ahead of the Russian intervention,” the analyst noted, “a series of speeches by pro- and anti-Assad world leaders clearly showed the existence of a compromise: that the US and the EU would agree to see Assad stay in power ‘for some time’, while Iran and Russia would not oppose his resignation ahead of elections.”
“This formula,” Mirzayan explained, “suited both the West and Russia. For its part, the West, in the event of Assad’s departure ahead of elections, would also be able to leave Syria, providing them with a formal ‘victory’.”
It’s worth recalling, the expert added, “that during the Arab Spring, the US and the EU had also conducted negotiations on regime change – in Libya. This was during the first months of the war, when Europe could not break through the defenses of the tribes loyal to Gaddafi, while the opposition forces did not constitute a reliable and battle worthy partner.”
“At that time, the discussion was about a voluntary resignation of Gaddafi (providing him with another position, such as in the African Union) and the transfer of the country’s governance to his eldest son, Saif al-Islam. The agreement could not be finalized largely because it was broken off by the Libyan opposition, along with its Middle Eastern sponsors.”
In Syria’s case, Mirzayan noted, “the opposition’s voice is significantly weaker, especially against the background of the roar of Russian aircraft, and the fact that the opposition’s own sponsors have openly discredited themselves by financing Daesh.”
Ultimately, the analyst emphasizes, Russia is not “clinging to Assad,” so much as “insisting that any agreed-upon vision of his departure is legitimate. And this is not only about the proverbial desire ‘not to hand over Assad’, but about Moscow’s categorical rejection of setting a precedent for regime change under pressure. Iran, too, does not want this. Both Moscow and Tehran wish to prevent Syria from being a ‘test case’ for Washington’s ambitions to engineer regime change against the leaders of other countries.”
Therefore, Mirzayan says, there are two interesting interpretations to Bloomberg’s claims about what Putin allegedly told Kerry.
“According to the first, the agreement between the West and Russia was not a compromise.” Under this scenario, “over the past several months, Putin sold Europe and the West into giving up on the Syrian issue and agreeing to the preservation of Assad’s government. From this perspective, all the statements by EU and US leaders to the effect that ‘Assad does not have to leave now’ were just the first steps to a follow-up that reads ‘Assad does not have to leave’.”
Unfortunately, the analyst argues,
“…the hope that the West has finally realized the sensibleness of preserving Assad’s government is extremely low. Yes, it would restrain the Islamists and provide comparative safety to Jordan and Israel. However, the EU and the US, who have staked their reputations in Syria, need a victory. A victory can only be achieved by overthrowing the Syrian ‘regime’, or, as a last resort, via his voluntary departure.”
The second variant, according to Mirzayan, is that “Putin really did reach an agreement with the West, but has now decided to break it due to the situation shifting in his favor. Russian planes are crushing the militants, the Syrian army is advancing, and Damascus is finding ways to compromise with both the Kurds, and the detachments of the secular opposition (the latter now witnessing the power that is on Assad’s side). Moreover, the Russian president, for his part, has repeatedly said that ‘only the Syrian people can decide who will govern them and according to what standards and rules.’
“This variant “is not a question of deception, but of an attempt to force the EU and the US to take a more active position on restoring Syria’s territorial integrity. If Washington was forced to agree with Putin’s terms, it would also be forced to help (or at least not hinder) the Syrian authorities’ liberation of the entire country. After all, if the elections on which Putin has insisted were to take place only in the country’s western part (where Assad is considered a national hero), the winner would be obvious. But if the eastern provinces, as well as other areas which have no love for Assad or the Ba’ath Party were given a say, the results could be put under question.”
In any case, Mirzayan suggests, “the second option too is highly unlikely,” given that the Russian leader, attempting to raise Russia’s credibility in establishing a dialogue with the West on equal footing, could not do so by deceiving his partners. “Quite the contrary, such a dialogue demands fair play. At least in the first stage.”
In the final analysis, stepping back from the fuss made by Bloomberg and much of the Western media over the Russian president’s alleged comments, what is obvious is that Russia, unlike its Western partners, is not obsessed with the idea of mandating which politicians can and cannot serve the Syrian people’s interests.