The signature of UN-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan is affixed to the new “road map for Syria” almost presented to the United Nations this week, but the content was penned at the White House in Washington. It encapsulated President Barack Obama’s grand new scheme for resolving the Syrian crisis without direct US military intervention.
It is “grand” in the sense that for the first time in Middle East superpower rivalries, the US was offering Russia and Iran the dominant role in a key country, Syria. In so doing, the scheme was supposed to hit another hard nail on the head by making a bid for counter-concessions on Iran’s nuclear program at the coming round of negotiations in Moscow.
This trade-off would end the bloody reign of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad with Russian and Iranian assent.
(The Obama plan was first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 543, June 1, “Syria: A Vehicle for Obama-Putin Rapprochement; Will Obama’s Grand Ploy with Russia Help Him with Iran?)
Although none of the participants admitted this, Obama’s plan was on the table at the meeting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held in Istanbul Wednesday, June 6 with her British, French, Turkish, Saudi and Qatari colleagues, and it preoccupied the ministerial-level Global Counterterrorism Forum Thursday.
Kofi Annan’s signature and the UN imprimatur were essential for making the new Syrian “road map” and its essential component, the assignment of 5,000 international monitors to Syria internationally acceptable as a UN-Arab League effort – when, in fact, the blue and white UN uniforms would be worn by thousands of Russian officers and soldiers.
Assad to step down and accept exile in Russia or Iran
Tuesday, over 7,500 kilometers away in Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao pressed visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin with questions about the plan: He wanted to know how Chinese interests in the Middle East would be guaranteed after Moscow and Tehran were established in Damascus as suzerains. He also felt the ground for Russia’s position with regard to preserving China’s privileged status in Tehran and the Iranian oil industry.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources lay out the five ultimate goals intended to result from the updated Annan (Obama) plan:
1. A new “contact group” will be set up as a kind of supra-government for Syria. Composed of the five UN Security Council’s permanent members – Russia, the US, Britain, France and China – plus Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the group is designated to conduct Syrian affairs as a provisional ruling body.
2. President Bashar Assad will agree to step down. He and his family and any members of his ruling circle wishing to do so will go into exile in Moscow or Tehran.
To prepare the way for his exit, US intelligence sources began leaking reports Wednesday, June 6 that Assad had in the last few days secretly transferred $6 million to Moscow. This was meant to indicate that Assad knew about the plan and had not rejected it, although our intelligence sources don’t confirm this US assumption.
3. A Syrian military council would be formed and assume power. Syrian opposition and the rebel SFA would be excluded from this body because the infighting and intense rivalries among opposition factions would make their presence ineffective.
Russia and Iran would pull the military council’s strings
4. The military council would function as a subsidiary of the contact group, although this would not be publicly admitted. This hierarchical setup is critical for two reasons:
a) It would keep the army in position to control internal security and check any signs of the state subsiding into civil war;
b) Since Moscow is tight with Syrian military and intelligence chiefs as well as the leading supplier of military hardware, placing the army at the core of government would position Russia at the center of influence in Damascus. It would be further bolstered by the presence of thousands of Russian “UN monitors.”
Tehran goes along with a military council taking over as a malleable tool, since hundreds of officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers and its Al Qods Brigades covert arm are posted at Syrian general staff headquarters and embedded in Syrian divisions and brigades as military advisers.
Russia and Iran would therefore find themselves squarely in control of the Syrian armed forces.
5. Dickering continues over the identity of the Syrian military figure to head the military council.
The Obama administration would prefer someone who doesn’t belong to the Assad clan’s minority Alawite sect, but it will extremely hard to find a high-ranking officer in Assad’s army who is not loyal to the president and not implicated in the carnage he inflicted on civilians during the uprising against his regime.
Tehran, on the other hand, would object to the removal of Allawites from positions of power in Damascus because it regards that sect as part of the Shiite denomination in every respect.
This divergence is not perceived in Washington and Moscow as an insuperable obstacle to the plan’s implementation.
Significant shifts in Ankara, Riyadh and Moscow
More obstacles began melting away this week under the impetus of the US game-changer.
On June 2, Debkafile revealed that Turkey had suddenly ditched its 15-month long support for the anti-Assad revolt and lined up behind Moscow.
Echoing Moscow’s position, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced Thursday, May 31, over Turkish NTV: “We have never advised either the Syrian National Council or the Syrian administration to conduct an armed fight, and we will never do so.” He added: “The Syrian people will be the driving force that eventually topples the Syrian regime. Assad will leave as a result of the people’s will.”
Ankara’s bid to join the Syrian contact group was thus placed up front.
It remained to Washington to bring the Saudi royal family aboard – no mean task in view of the Obama administration’s oft-reiterated commitment to curtail Iran’s designs on the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, and prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Now, Riyadh was being asked to subscribe to a scheme for cementing Iran’s influence in Damascus and, by association, in Beirut and thereby enhancing the power of the sworn enemy of the oil kingdom, the Shiite Hizballah and its Hassan Nasrallah.
Yet certain vibes indicated that the new plan for Syria was getting through to the Saudis.
After Syria, Iran expected to yield on its nuclear designs
They were detected in the address Monday, June 4, which Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal gave at the Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers’ meeting in Jeddah: “We hope Russia as an influential international player will make a contribution to regime change in Syria,” he said.
The Saudis have hitherto objected to Moscow’ coming anywhere near efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict because of its bias in support of Assad.
However, hard on Saudi heels, Moscow too shifted ground. The next day, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in Switzerland, “We have never said or insisted that Assad necessarily had to remain in power at the end of the political process. This issue has to be settled by the Syrians themselves.”
He spoke as Damascus gave permission for relief workers to visit four trouble spots.
That position was reinforced Wednesday, June 6, by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who remarked that the Kofi Annan plan for Syria is the only game in town. He did not elaborate on its content.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources note that the Syrian step is only part one of President Obama’s grand design. The second part is timed to take place in Moscow on June 16, when Iran is expected to start giving way on its nuclear program as the quid pro quo for the advantageous position it has been offered in Damascus. That will be the supreme test of Obama’s game plan.
Last minute breaking news: The Kremlin has informed the White House of its rejection of Obama’s plan to deploy 5,000 monitors, most of them Russian, in Syria. Russia refuses to take responsibility for the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria. Its decision about membership of the proposed contact group is still pending.
The next two articles deal with the view from Tehran.