Moscow is intensifying its efforts in the Syria conflict, and urging both sides to engage in dialogue. But is a diplomatic solution still achievable?
"If the only alternative is hell or a political process, then all of us have to work continuously towards the political process." The United Nations' mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, in Moscow on Saturday to discuss the situation in Syria, painted a bleak picture of a country at the edge of the abyss.
But Brahimi is having little success in moving the process forward. No new initiatives emerged from his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Talks with the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus earlier this week were equally unfruitful.
The Syrian opposition rejected Russia's invitation to attend the talks in Moscow this weekend, accusing it of interfering in Syrian affairs. Moaz Alkhatib, the leader of the National Coalition opposition group in Syria, suggested that if Russia wished to demonstrate that it took the opposition seriously, it should clearly condemn the Syrian regime and call on Assad to step down. This, he said, was the "basic condition for any negotiations."
A 'counterproductive' move
Sergei Lavrov dismissed this stance, and the opposition's refusal to attend, as a "dead end," and "counterproductive." Both he and Brahimi say they believe there is still a chance for a political settlement to the conflict.
However, on Saturday Lavrov was at pains to emphasize that Assad has "repeatedly said both publicly and in private… that he is not planning to leave, that he will remain in his post," and stated that Russia "does not have the ability to change this."
Russia has continued to back the Syrian regime, and has so far vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at putting pressure on Assad. Nonetheless, Gerhard Mangott, a political scientist at the University of Innsbruck, believes that extending an invitation to the Syrian opposition to attend the talks in Moscow was a sign that Russia is reassessing its position.
Mangott believes it has realized that the Syrian rebels will not be defeated by military means, and is therefore deploying all diplomatic means at its disposal to prevent the - for Russia - "disaster" scenario of the Syrian opposition overthrowing its last ally in the region. Were that to happen, Mangott says, Moscow would "have no role whatsoever any more in the Middle East."
Assad regime minus Assad?
Mangott believes that Russia is banking on a change of leadership within the Assad regime. Moscow, he thinks, is keen to shed its former ally "sooner rather than later," and its protestations to the contrary are because it wants to "avoid giving the impression that it's part of an international front to put pressure on Assad to step down."
Lebanese journalist Eyad Abushakra agrees. As far as Moscow is concerned, he says it would rather see a Russia-friendly regime in power minus Assad, if the alternative is the current opposition. And the Coalition's categorical refusal to negotiate with Assad is, he believes, nudging Russia in this direction. Russia, he says, "is fighting a rearguard action in the Middle East to maintain what has remained of its influence and its bases."
Mangott explains that Russia fears a new government dominated by the opposition might lead Syria to ally itself with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and destabilize Russia's northern Caucasus region.
Little hope of a peaceful solution
Both Abushakra and Mangott comment that Russia's persistence in backing Assad has incensed the Syrian opposition. Mangott sees Moscow's sudden readiness to talk to the Coalition as a signal to the Syrian leadership. Moscow, he says, is indicating to the small circle of high-ranking officers and members of the secret service that the time has finally come to replace Assad with another member of the administration.
Abushakra believes this is a solution that would also be agreeable to the Iranian government, which supports the Assad regime by supplying it with weapons. After all, Iran also fears it will lose influence in the region if the Assad regime should fall.
Mangott, however, is not convinced that, at this stage, Moscow will still be able to salvage the situation. He reckons that the chances for a negotiated solution are "very slim." Sergei Lavrov recently warned that the window for a peaceful solution was growing ever smaller.
For his part, Abushakra fears the window has already closed, and that in spite of Russia's last-ditch diplomatic efforts, Syria's political future will now be decided on the battlefield.