Russia is trying to rejuvenate its role in international diplomacy by bringing the Syrian opposition and the regime together for face-to-face negotiations, but the Syrian people stand to gain little.
By Burhan Ghalioun
The Russians have launched an initiative to gather the Syrian opposition in Moscow in preparation for a dialogue with the Assad regime. This is an exceptional opportunity for them to repurpose their diplomatic role in the international arena, and to find new common ground to co-operate with the West in the hope that this could be a prelude for mending US-Russian relations.
In effect, the main wager behind the series of meetings that Russia will organise, if Moscow's efforts succeed, is not about the survival of the regime or even the Syrian issue itself.
Rather, the goal is to end Moscow's isolation and get out of the impasse that President Putin's policies have precipitated. Since the Russians cannot back down in Ukraine for ideological, nationalist, and even symbolic reasons, they judged that the best thing that could bring them and the West together would be settling the Syrian issue.
By that I don't mean that the Russians intend to concede Syria in return for Ukraine, but rather that they want to help the West cover up its desire to evade its obligations to the Syrian people and to relieve it from the mounting criticisms against the policy pursued by US President Obama and the West in general.
As a result of this Western approach, the Syrian democratic opposition has declined in tandem with the rise of the forces of global terrorism and extremism in Syria and Iraq, essentially because of the West's reluctance to support the Syrian revolution and force Assad to step down, as it had demanded from the first year of the uprising.
By merely securing the consent of the Syrian opposition to meet with representatives of the Syrian regime outside of any political or legal framework, on the basis of so-called "direct national dialogue" and without conditions, Moscow could have contributed to burying the Geneva negotiations and all the UN Security Council resolutions which called for clear and official negotiations with a specific goal: the transition to a democratic system.
A transitional governing body would prepare the country for its next stage.
The fundamental conditions for achieving this are known: Instating a ceasefire; releasing detainees; recognising the right to demonstrate peacefully; and trying those responsible for crimes.
All this will be forgotten, and all that will be left is what the supposed Syrian opposition - handpicked by Moscow for their closeness to the Russian agenda - would agree to.
Remembering the people
It will come at the cost of marginalising the Syrian people, just as the regime had done before - and at the cost of unconditionally surrendering to the apparatus of the regime of organised slaughter, without the political or legal cover otherwise represented by UN resolutions and the Geneva Communique.
Letting Syrians engage in dialogue to reach a solution without international sponsorship and binding resolutions - in a war where the entire world has intervened, and where Iran and Russia are waging a fierce war against the people, independence and freedom of Syria - can only mean one thing: that the international community wants to wash its hands of the matter, forcing Syrians to accept negotiations on Assad's terms, that is, to surrender to his might.
The Russians stand to win the most in this scenario. Through this process, they would be holding all the cards and would enjoy an unlimited margin to manoeuvre with Assad, the opposition, and the West all at once.
The Russians stand to win the most in this scenario.
They would impose the solution that best suits their interests and vision, which they have never hidden from anyone: fighting "terrorism" - read insurgency, revolution, and protests - and protecting the existing regime and any regime in the name of defending state institutions.
This was the Russian position before and during the revolution, and will remain their position afterwards.
The Russians do not assign any value to the protests against Assad's policies and the nature of the police state he leads, because they, to put it simply, can only see the object of the state as a security apparatus. They do not recognise the rights of the Russian people themselves, let alone the Syrian people.
Winning for the West
The second winner is the West, first and foremost the United States. Indeed, the United States is looking for an opportunity to liberate itself from its obligations to the Syrian people, after finding out that the price of these obligations is greater than just economic sanctions, humanitarian assistance, and a few good words.
The West is not capable of offering more, or at least does not want to offer more sacrifices for the sake of a people towards whom it feels no sympathy, or political, cultural, or human affinity.
The West will not able to repudiate the promises and commitments imposed on it at the start of the revolution, as long as the opposition continues to insist on UN Security Council resolutions, the Geneva Communique, and the agreed mechanisms for their implementation.
The other key party that benefits is the Assad regime itself. His administration, through these cosmetic dialogues, would be able to guarantee a relaxation of international political and military pressure.
It might also get the chance to be thoroughly rehabilitated, with support from Russia and Arab states anxious about terrorism - which Assad himself had previously encouraged - with some superficial modifications, such as replacing Assad and some objectionable figures associated with him.
This would allow the West to save face, in the event Moscow succeeds in persuading its allies in Tehran that it could guarantee its key interests without Assad in power.
However, the West cannot tolerate these interests, as they essentially involve an Iranian bid to maintain a "popular army" in Syria, which would resemble Hizballah's army in Lebanon - and may be even larger. This was the gist of what the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard himself had said.
Syria and Palestine
In truth, what is happening to the Syrian national democratic movement in its struggle against a regime with similar international support to Israel is exactly what happened to the Palestinian national movement when it abandoned dozens of UN Security Council and other UN resolutions to look for a "breakthrough" via the secret Oslo channel.
There, the negotiations were not subject to any legal reference framework or any international guarantees. The result was catastrophic for the dream of Palestinian statehood.
Meanwhile, the negotiations, which seemed promising in the beginning, entered a tunnel that they have yet to emerge from, allowing Tel Aviv to control their path and agenda.
The Palestinian cause became a minor issue in international politics, and the United States was able to absolve itself of its obligations. And as a result, Israel's historical sins and crimes have been whitewashed.
The potential participants in the Moscow meetings must realise that any deviation from the Geneva framework would mean absolving the international community of its commitments to the Syrian people and their plight, and leaving the Syrians prey to the axis of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime with the blessing and encouragement of the West and the United States.
Any acceptance by Syrian opposition members of Assad as a partner in a project to rescue Syria and restore peace and stability there, after his systematic and methodical slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, dispossessing millions of them, and destroying their present and future, means whitewashing the regime and exonerating it of its crimes.
Beyond that, it would mean condemning the revolution and the opposition and blaming them for all the crimes for which Assad and his regime are responsible, whether they be crimes he and his militias committed directly, or those he caused through his aggressive and criminal policies.
Dancing with the devil
Finally, I don't believe that the world has ever seen an opposition that agreed to negotiate with its enemy with a gun pointed to its head and yet went on to achieve results for its people.
It would be very humiliating for Syrian opposition members, or those who claim to be so, to engage in talks with a regime that continues to bombard people with barrel bombs and carry out terrifying massacres, killing, maiming, and permanently disabling hundreds of people each and every day.
To avoid looking helpless... the opposition should refuse to sit alongside those accused of genocide.
At the very least, to avoid looking helpless, humiliated, and desperate for a political solution - with a foe that only dealt with anyone for more than half a century with force, showed no mercy to children, youths, or elderly people, and did not hesitate to fight its own people with chemical weapons - those speaking on behalf of the opposition should refuse to sit alongside those accused of genocide and crimes against humanity by human rights groups.
To preserve their personal dignity, not to mention out of respect for the blood of the martyrs and victims, they should condition their participation on an end to the use of barrel bombs and heavy weapons against civilians - even bearing in mind that the Assad dynasty has never yet respected a promise.
Some might ask, what is the solution then? What is there to do if the Moscow meeting risks becoming a Syrian version of the Oslo process, leading to concession after concession without result, and gambling with the huge sacrifices of the people?
The answer of course is not calling for the continuation of the war, but rather we call for adhering to negotiations on solid foundations that would indeed lead to a solution that would guarantee both the survival of the state and its institutions, and the satisfaction of the main bulk of the people's demands, led by their right to self-determination, putting an end to the police state, and putting an end to the linkage between the state and projects for regional and international dominance.
This is neither difficult nor impossible. The regime is exhausted, and its allies are facing growing economic, social, and political crises.
Today, we are in the final stage of "who blinks first".
The Syrian people, who have lost everything they could lose, and whom even the mightiest enemy cannot do any more to hurt them, are the best able to hold their ground and endure, and force their barbaric foe, no matter how wicked, to be the first to scream and surrender.
The people who have made sacrifices that astonished the whole world, confronted many alliances, and suffered frequent betrayals, will remain steadfast and have the last word. These people will not accept anything less than dignity, freedom, and victory.
Burhan Ghalioun is a former head of the Syrian National Council.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.