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The Ajami Blog | Will the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow Alliance Prevail?

by RASHA ELASS

17 Apr 2012 02:51Comments
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Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. (Homepage: Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.)

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Rasha Elass covered the Middle East for Reuters and The National, among others. Her reportage on Islam has been recognized by the Cornell Religion Reporter award committee. She is currently writing a memoir about Syria, where she was born. Ajami, which means "Persian" in Arabic, is a blog about the role of Iran in the Arab world today.
[ blog ] This week, U.N. observers are setting up their headquarters in Syria to prepare for their peacekeeping mission there, as per U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan's plan.

This comes as worries persist that Damascus may not hold up its end of the bargain for a ceasefire, with Assad forces continuing to shell civilian areas.

It also comes days after an underpublicized visit by Annan to Tehran, and hours after a Russian endorsement of a U.N. resolution to send observers to Syria.

Russia and Iran, both key players in the Syria crisis, appear to be softening their stance, which has been staunchly and unequivocally supportive of Assad since the uprising began. But this showing of their softer side may be due more to their confidence in Assad's survival than a change of heart.

Iran wants Assad and the status quo geopolitical balance to remain in the region, and has made no secret of its military support for Assad against pockets of opposition. Last week's Ajami blog detailed some of this support, and the close relationship between the two countries.

Moscow, too, is invested in keeping Assad in power, even when it seems to also want to project a more tempered image.

Last week, Russia endorsed the U.N. resolution to send observers to Syria, but only after haggling to substantially water it down. Many regard the move as little more than lip service.

"I don't see the Russians pressuring Assad that much. They'll do nothing to halt his ability," Professor Mark Katz of George Mason University told Ajami.

"They want him to stay in power, but also want to be seen in the West as 'cooperative.'"

Moscow has even been receiving members of the opposition exile-based Syrian National Council, sometimes within the same week as Russian high-level meetings with the Syrian regime. Again, this is seen as little more than a farce.

"They do the 'mini-max,;" said Bob Freedman, political science professor at Johns Hopkins. "They do the maximum to help Assad, but the minimum to show [the West and] Sunni Arab world 'Look look, we're doing what we can to save Sunni Arabs."

The Sunni Arab world, specifically Saudi Arabia, has been quick to label the violence in Syria as sectarian and "anti-Sunni."

Though Tehran and Moscow do not see eye to eye on many things, they have this in common: neither wants to risk Syria falling into the hands of some Saudi-backed Sunni government, which is what many predict will happen in a post-Assad state.

"The Russians fear that a post-Assad government will be a Sunni regime. This would be friendly to Saudi [Arabia], but bad for Russia," said Katz.

Yet as Moscow endorsed the U.N. plan, Tehran too got on board with much cheer and optimism. Such was the mood there last week at the joint press conference with Annan and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

"I have had a very constructive discussion with the [Iranian] minister...on the Syrian situation," said Annan. "We have agreed that we need to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, and [I] was happy to see the minister endorsed the six-point plan."

This newly found support for "peace" in Syria, by two of Assad's biggest suppliers of the weapons and ammunition his forces are using against civilians, is not surprising -- if they both believe it is an opportunity for Assad to gracefully end the year-long crisis and stay in power.

Annan's six-point plan calls for a U.N.-supervised ceasefire by all parties, the withdrawal of soldiers and heavy weapons from cities, and the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

It does not call for the ouster of Assad, or any political conditions that accommodate the opposition.

It seems that if Assad complies with it, even if only half-heartedly (his forces continue to shell Homs as this went to press), then he may very well survive.

After all, Assad's father, Hafez, carried out a similarly bloody offensive on the opposition in Hama in 1982, killing thousands, then lived to reign for 18 more years.

In Bashar's case, with the world watching in real time outrageous state violence against unarmed civilians, political survival may not come that easy.

But Damascus has already begun implementing political "reforms" to pave the way for something like a "new and improved" Syria. These include allowing new parties and their members to run for office.

Unsurprisingly, a close look at the list of candidates who have signed up to run reads like a regime roll call. It includes, for example, a veteran of the Information Ministry, whose job it was to intimidate foreign journalists.

One likely scenario of what might happen in the near future is this: The Assad regime will slowly wind down its military crackdown on Syrian cities and towns. Then Damascus will start touting the political "reforms" as real change. Tehran and Moscow will amplify this message, and all three will count their blessings that they have won.

"Bad guys do sometimes win," Katz said.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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