What lay behind the harsh recriminations traded between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after they met in St. Petersburg on Friday, June 29, and a day later in Geneva? Washington and Moscow seemed to agree on nothing with regard to Syria. Yet, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, they did secretly reach a measure of accord on a transition in Damascus – only, when it came to implementation, both sides turned to double games and things started falling apart.
The secret agreement forged between the Obama administration and Moscow, which is revealed here for the first time, was based on three principles:
1. The non-militarization of the Syrian conflict;
2. The departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad and close relatives, leaving behind his ruling establishment. While top military figures like Defense Minister Gen. Asif Shawqat must go, the next level of command of the armed forces and the intelligence and security apparatuses must stay, including the paramilitary Alawite Shabiha which spearheads the brutal suppression of the Syrian revolt, after a death toll past 17,000.
There were two reasons for keeping the regime in place:
- Without functioning military and security forces, Syria would implode into rampant civil war opening the door for an al Qaeda takeover.
- Moscow insisted on preserving the military command hierarchy built around a core of Russian-trained officers to guarantee Russian influence in Damascus in any future diplomatic or military turn of events.
3. The retention of UN-Arab League envoy, former UN Secretary Kofi Annan, for a continuous shuttle between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. He would however confine his contacts to regime figures destined to stay in office after the Assad clan departs. Making them parties to the Annan mediation would set in motion the separation of Assad and his family from power as heads of the regime.
The devil is in the detail and double games
This three-part plan was no sooner negotiated than the double games started – partly because neither Washington nor Moscow believed the other was sincere about upholding it, but also because they neglected to work through the details of implementation. The devil did indeed turn up in the detail.
President Barack Obama and his Middle East advisers are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington as strongly suspecting the Russians of working surreptitiously to strengthen the military ties between Tehran and Damascus. In so doing, they would substantially lengthen the time frame for Assad’s exit to two or three years – if at all.
Supporting this suspicion was the first coordinated Syrian-Iranian military exercises taking place this week, which simulated foreign invasions and coincided with Moscow’s decision to send 11 warships to Syria, from the Baltic, Black and North Seas.
This military spectacle, the Americans believe, was orchestrated to persuade Assad to stay put in Damascus – just the opposite of what was agreed between Clinton and Lavrov.
And when the Russian foreign minister received two Syrian opposition delegations in Moscow this week, he is reported by our sources as having presented them with a rewritten Annan peace formula which retained Assad – albeit as a reduced figurehead president – contrary to the Clinton-Lavrov deal.
The amended version put before the opposition Syrian National Council head Abdelbaset Sieda would also install a new government with parity for regime and opposition parties and place the army under the command of a new prime minister – not the president. Sieda did not reject it out of hand, only saying he would think about it.
Moscow maneuvers to preserve Assad, Washington turns against Annan
At the same time, the Russian foreign minister omitted to specify who would control Syria’s sprawling intelligence and security services which are more powerful than the army and spearhead the suppression of the uprising.
Moscow, therefore, continues its maneuvers for saving Assad and the main bulwark of his regime.
Washington is still of the opinion reached earlier this year that Moscow, having burned its bridges to the Arab world by championing the Syrian dictator, has little choice but to keep faith with him and cooperate closely with Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Any deal struck by Moscow with the Obama administration on Syria or Iran is therefore not to be trusted.
Moscow’s mistrust of the Americans springs from its conviction that the Obama administration is governed by two ulterior motives: Its determination to remove the Syrian ruler by military intervention through such Western allies as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar; and the use of Assad’s ouster as springboard for attacking the Iranian nuclear program, which highly-placed intelligence officials in Europe and the Persian Gulf now predict is timed for the coming October.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 547 of July 6: Saudis Preparing for US to Strike Iran)
So the White House and the Kremlin suspect one another of using their three-point deal to leverage their respective goals in Syria, as well as Iran.
Kofi Annan felt the brunt of this conflict of interest when he traveled to Tehran Monday, July 9. Moscow encouraged him to bid for Iranian endorsement of his transition plan for Syria, which the UN envoy regarded as essential before its submission to the UN Security Council for approval.
But Washington, which last weekend joined Moscow in approving the Annan’s fresh attempt to negotiate with Assad in Damascus, turned on him fiercely Monday for extending his mission to Tehran. From co-sponsor with Russia of Annan’s mediation, the Americans now angrily oppose it.
The acrimony building between the United States and Russia is likely to escalate toward the climax of a US or American-led strike against Iran.