Taking Lead in Syria Talks, Russia Works to Preserve Assad Regime

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Syrian President Bashar Assad does an interview with Russian newspaper "Izvestia" in Damascus on Aug. 26, 2013

On Thursday, Sept. 12, when Russian and American diplomats came to the negotiating table in Geneva, the Russian side came in with the upper hand. The previous night, they had sent Washington a proposal for dismantling Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. According to Russian diplomat Alexei Pushkov, who discussed the outlines of the proposal with TIME, it includes several complicated phases and gives Syria a leading role in the destruction of its own chemical arsenal. The American side, meanwhile, has one trump card in these negotiations — the threat of a military strike against Syria. But Russia seems ready to call that a bluff. “If the U.S. wants to play the main fiddle here, let them go ahead and occupy Syria like they did Iraq or destroy it from the air like they did in Libya,” says Pushkov, who is the chairman of the foreign-affairs committee of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma. “Those are their only two options for taking the lead at this point.”

The Russian proposal, which Syrian President Bashar Assad has signaled his willingness to accept, would take much more than a couple of weeks to carry out, says Pushkov, who was briefed on the contents of the proposal but declined to show a copy of it to TIME. “It envisions several stages,” he says. In the first step, Syria would join the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international agreement that bans the production, storage or use of these weapons. (Since it came into force in 1997, the convention has been ratified by 189 nations; Syria is so far among the handful of states, including Israel, that refused.) The second stage would allow Syria time to prepare a report on what kinds of chemical weapons it has and where they are located. The third stage would allow Syria to negotiate with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N.-affiliated, Netherlands-based administrator of the convention, on how the organization’s inspectors would work inside Syria.

Pushkov was more vague about the fourth and final stage. On Thursday, Russia’s most authoritative daily newspaper, Kommersant, cited an unnamed Russian diplomat as saying that the proposal indeed has four stages. The first three roughly coincide with Pushkov’s description, while the fourth stage, according to Kommersant, involved Syria “deciding with the [OPCW] inspectors who will destroy the chemical weapons and how.” Pushkov, however, said that by the time the inspectors arrive at the chemical-weapons sites inside Syria, the question of their destruction will become practically irrelevant. “If we are to believe President Obama, the main goal in all of this is to prevent the use of these chemical weapons,” he says. “After the inspectors arrive in Syria and start working at places where the chemical weapons are stored, it will already be practically impossible to use them.” Pushkov would not elaborate on whether the Russian plan calls specifically for their destruction, nor did he offer a clear time frame within which the process could take place. Speaking to reporters in Kazakhstan on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov likewise did not mention the need to destroy the weapons, saying only that international experts must “determine which specific measures will be required to secure the appropriate means of storage.”

But regardless of its final phase, the proposal would clearly give Syria substantial control over the process at every step. The role of the U.S. would be much more modest, says Pushkov. “As one of the leading powers in the world, they will of course influence this process,” he says. “But all of this will be done on Syrian territory. So either Obama has to put boots on the ground, occupy Syria and destroy the weapons himself, or he has to accept the necessity for negotiations with the Syrian government through the mechanisms of the United Nations.”

With the start of the talks in Geneva, Russia has in effect brought Assad’s government to the negotiating table with the U.S. That is already a diplomatic coup for President Vladimir Putin. Since the Syrian civil war began more than two years ago, Putin has insisted that a negotiated solution must involve Assad, whose exit Obama has demanded. In December, the U.S. recognized Syria’s main opposition council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. By setting up these talks between Washington and Damascus, Russia has paved the way for further negotiations to end the conflict, says Sergei Ordzhonikidze, a Russian ambassador-at-large and former Deputy Foreign Minister. “Destroying the chemical weapons is one factor, a very important one,” he told TIME in an interview Thursday. “But it does not take the political resolution off the table. Not at all. This is just the beginning. Then you have to stay at the table and resolve the conflict,” said Ordzhonikidze, who served from 2002 to 2011 as the Director General of the U.N. office.

The Russian end game in these negotiations may therefore go well beyond what the U.S. signed up for, which was an agreement to take Assad’s chemical weapons out of the fight. Indeed, the ultimate goal of Russian diplomacy would be to allow Assad, or at least his chosen successor, to stay in power in Syria, says Sergei Baburin, a former Russian lawmaker who now heads the Russian Committee of Solidarity with the Peoples of Libya and Syria, a civil-society group backed by the Russian government that is opposed to U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. “Saving the [Syrian] leadership that is loyal to Russia is a guarantee of Russia having influence in the region and defending its national interests there,” Baburin tells TIME. Judging by Obama’s past condemnations of the Assad regime, that is unlikely to be an outcome the U.S. would welcome. But if those are the guns that Russia plans on sticking to in Geneva, these negotiations may be a lot harder than the U.S. expects.