What is the “Russian-American Initiative” for Syria?

July 29, 2013
Residents of opposition-occupied Kafranbel, Syria, comment on Russia's future relationship with Syria should Assad be toppled

On July 25, Russian Prime Minister Sergey Lavrov met with a Syrian government delegation headed by Qadri Jamil, Assad’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs. The meeting came at the same time that representatives of the Syrian opposition met with the UN Security Council for the first time. Lavrov opened with an introductory speech. The statement contains all sorts of fascinating insights into Russia’s thinking on the Syrian conflict:

Dear Mr Jamil, dear delegation members,

We deem it important to use your stay in Moscow to exchange opinions about the development of the situation in Syria and, the main thing, to make it pass to a political tideway.

We are seriously concerned with the situation in SAR [Syrian Arab Republic]. We are convinced that there is no military solution for the crisis. We would like to bring this thought to each and all participants of the Syrian process. We continue to meet both representative of SAR Government and the opposition groups, convince everybody that we need to adopt the Russian-American initiative as soon as possible, especially in what concerns the convention of an International Conference on Syria without preconditions, for full and comprehensive implementation of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012.

Unfortunately, unlike the Government of Syria the majority of the opposition, including representative of the National Coalition do not show such readiness. We insistently and consistently appeal to our partners having serious impact on the National Coalition to use it for a good cause and to achieve its refusal from its current non-constructive position.

We know that the Syrian Government is open for the dialogue with opposition forces. We appeal to continue these efforts so that no constructive group of opposition members stays outside the frame of participants of the international conference, which, I hope, will be convened in the nearest future.

I also would like to draw attention to the final Declaration of leaders of countries of the Group of Eight adopted in Lough Erne (Northern Ireland) last month, the section of which dedicated to the situation in Syria, contains a direct appeal to the Syrian Government and the opposition to consolidate efforts to remove terrorists and extremists from the country. We think that this task should become one of the main items of the international conference. We certainly need to develop specific measures, which will allow implementing each and all provisions of the Geneva Communiqué.

At our today’s meeting, I expect to discuss these issues, as well as main lines of bilateral relations.

The question that immediately jumps out at those who have been monitoring the Syrian crisis: What is the “Russian-American initiative?”

That initiative refers to the June 30, 2012 Geneva Communique, but almost no news agency or public official who isn’t Russian or Iranian uses that phrase to describe the Geneva agreement, a modification of a peace plan put forth by UN special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan. All of the UN’s plans hinge on the cessation of hostilities. To accomplish this, Annan’s plan called for the Syrian government to withdraw the armed forces from the cities, and mandated the end of the use of “heavy weapons” like tanks, artillery, and airstrikes. Humanitarian aid would then be moved into all areas that needed it. Also, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly would be mandatory requirements, allowing protesters to peacefully gather without fear of more violence.

The Kofi Annan plan was, technically, agreed upon by both the Russians and the Americans. What’s even more surprising is that, in principle at least, the Syrian opposition and the Assad government also agreed to the plan.

So if this is what everyone wants to happen, why did it fail?  To answer this question, we might look at the first ceasefire attempt in Syria. In December 2011, Syrian watchers (including myself) noticed that the city of Homs was under a sudden wave of attack. Assad’s artillery and tank attacks were rocking opposition-leaning districts in what was once the 3rd largest city in Syria. At the exact same time as this event was unfolding, Assad made statements saying that he had agreed to the Annan plan and was withdrawing troops from the cities. He also claimed that peaceful protests would be allowed, and had always been allowed. Within days, as the international community pointed to events in Homs as examples of a broken promise, Assad made the essential clarification – he explained that he he had withdrawn troops from all cities, but some areas were held by terrorists, and he was simply conducting a counter-insurgency effort that shouldn’t be any of the international community’s business. Iran and Russia, Assad’s two main backers on the international front, repeated the same line. As long as the Syrian opposition are calling for the removal of President Assad, then they are terrorists and any military action against them is justified.

In the Geneva agreement of June 30, 2012, there was agreement that a transitional government would have to be formed. Again, however, the United States, citing the desires of the Syrian people, called for Assad’s resignation as a precondition. This ran counter to Russia’s statements that it was up to the Syrian people to decide Syria’s fate. Back-channel signals from Syria were clear, however – the Syrian regime would not resign, and the regime would play a major role in picking who would represent “the Syrian people” during any transitional government. With a raging insurgency gaining momentum, and a regime using increasingly heavy-handed tactics against both insurgents and defiant civilian populations, talks broke down and have never gained momentum since.

Nothing has changed in Russia’s position. Look at the language in this newest statement. According to Russia: the Americans and Russians have agreed on a plan, the Syrian government is willing to abide by that plan and form a transitional government, but the opposition is unwilling to come to the table. Those things are demonstrably false. A transitional government, by definition, cannot be led by the current government, and this point – whether Assad stays or leaves – is the fundamental bone of contention between Russia and most of the rest of the world. If put to a democratic vote, there is no question that Syria will be getting a new leader, one that is likely to break with Russian ties (Russia is propping up the regime with weapons and international support), Iran (Iran is supplying money, logistical military support, and other financial and military support), Shia leadership in Lebanon (Hezbollah is a Shia militant organization and political party, and Iran’s primary front against Israel and the West), and Alawite leadership (a sect of Shia muslims to which the Assad family belongs). In other words, without Assad, Iran and Russia lose a significant military ally and trading partner, and likely gain a new adversary, a nation that has been fighting the Russia-Iran-Lebanon coalition and is more inclined towards Sunni states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

So the Russians can call Kofi-Annan’s plan the “Russian-American initiative” all they want. There is no more common ground on this issue now than there was a year ago. The prospects for a diplomatic solution may be far more remote now than they have ever been. Whether the United States decides to take a leadership role in militarily supporting the rebels, or not, the fight for Syria will have to play out for some time before either side is willing to drop its preconditions and come to the negotiating table. The Syrian people took to the streets to rid themselves of Assad, they didn’t leave once the gunfire started, and the insurgency was born, after the protests were violently attacked, with a single purpose – to get rid of the Assad regime. The regime, on the other hand, started its crackdown against the peaceful protests of 2011 because “the resignation of the President” was an unthinkable demand. That is the fundamental underlying cause of this conflict, and re-branding old peace plans doesn’t change that fact.