Is Russia’s offer of Parliamentary Elections in Syria Serious?

By Juan Cole | (informed Comment) | – –

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said three surprising things Saturday in an interview with Rossiya 1.

1. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would have to be part of any transition to a new govering.

2. Syria could have nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections next summer

3. Russia is willing to give air support to Free Syrian Army groups if it is informed where they are (presumably if they are willing to fight al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). American refusal to coordinate with Russia (i.e. to give Moscow any information about Free Syria Army positions) is a mistake.

These remarks seem self-contradictory and a little screwy, which suggests they aren’t informational but instrumental. That is, they don’t describe actual political positions but are being said to accomplish some strategic goals.

For instance, if there were genuine parliamentary and presidential elections, how could it be assured that al-Assad would remain part of the transition? What if he (being a mass murderer and all) were defeated and a new president came in?

I think what Lavrov is saying is that al-Assad would not step down before the elections, which has been the American and Saudi position. On the other hand, assuming the elections aren’t phoney, Russia may be also signalling to Iran that they can’t hope for al-Assad to stay in power forever, which is Iran’s position.

There is a clear split between Moscow and Tehran on this matter, with the Russians much more ready to see Bashar al-Assad moved out of power in favor of an alternative more acceptable to the opposition. National elections would be a way of coming up with an alternative candidate, and suggesting them is a way of slapping down the commander of the special operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qasem Soleimani, who seems to think that the Baath Party, after everything that has happened, could somehow survive along with the al-Assad dictatorship.

Of course, Russian policy as outlined here is more a forlorn hope than a policy. You can’t have real elections in the middle of a civil war. And nobody trusts the Baathis or Russians to have upright polls!

Then, Lavrov wants the non-al-Qaeda, non-ISIL opposition to understand that Russia now holds the cards in Syria. If Syrian oppositionists want, say, a new Federal system in the country that allows Sunnis in Idlib, Alawis in Latakia, and Kurds in Rojava more provincial autonomy from the central government, Russia alone can deliver that to them.

But one price will be turning on the al-Qaeda affiliates and offshoots (which happen also to be allied with and often to contain Russian Muslim radicals from Chechniya, Daghestan, etc.).

Most so-called “CIA-vetted” opposition groups are small, less than 1,000 fighters, though there are dozens of them, and despite having been “vetted” many have a tactical alliance with al-Qaeda (the Support Front or Nusra Front) or with the coalition it spearheads, the Army of Conquest, consisting of hard line pro-Saudi Salafists.

Lavrov seems to me offering the small “CIA-vetted” groups a new possibility. That would be to split from al-Qaeda and its coalition decisively, and find a place in a new post-conflict Syria alongside the pro-Baath groups that still support al-Assad.

It is a government of national unity strategy of a sort Mikahil Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, tried in Afghanistan as he withdrew. The Soviets urged a national unity government headed by their man, Najib Ullah, which would be nationalist and post-communist, and with which the Mujahidin groups supported by the CIA would make a political settlement.

In the end the Mujahidin rejected all this and swept into Kabul. Najib Ullah was hanged from a lamppost.

The advantage for Russia of making this offer to the CIA-vetted groups is that it points to a Russian-brokered end to the conflict and hopes to divide the opposition, with genuine moderates (good luck finding those) turning on the al-Qaeda affiliates and offshoots.

It doesn’t cost Lavrov anything to say it, and if there ever is a settlement in Syria that is not simply an opposition victory and blood-bath against the Alawis and other minorities, this is what it would have to look like.

At the moment, it isn’t plausible– the Sunni opposition groups are not yet convinced they can’t win against al-Assad, which is why they are fighting; and they wouldn’t be willing to break with al-Qaeda, because either they need it and its allies or because they are afraid of reprisals from it. They have to become more afraid of Russia than of al-Qaeda before this strategy becomes something anyone could seriously talk about.

But if the Russian intervention continues for a year, and Moscow can change the situation on the ground radically, its hope that ultimately everyone– al-Assad, the vetted opposition, and Iran will have to acknowledge that they have to deal with Russia to broker a settlement is not completely crazy.


Related video:

N. B.: Press TV is a partisan Iranian news organization and this item is intended simply to illustrate an Iranian point of view– though the guest is American– not as ‘news.’

Press TV: “US refusal to coordinate its Syria campaign with Russia “big mistake” ‘

23 Responses

  1. Well wouldn’t it be time to ask what are USA, Saudis, Turks etc offering trough arming, financing and training Sunni militants, religious fanatics who in many cases are not even Syrians. Do those who organize this fighting seriously believe that the one thousand guerrilla, bandit and terrorist militias will lay down their weapons and organize elections when (if) they manage to destroy the present Syrian regime and governmental system? Come-on, what would Saudis for example say if their regime arranges “democracy” to Syria, but doesn’t allow it at home? The fact is that somebody has to have control and keep order in Syria before there can be arranged any kind of elections. Before that order requirement happening election discussion is pure speculation. Russia’s plan at least gives some hope of order “returning”. The US, Saudi etc “plan” promises no Syria and decades of instability and fighting. And a couple of million new Europeans. Plus Golan for Israel because there will be no Syria demanding it back.

  2. As I understand it, Assad has indicated he would stand again in any free and fair elections and would most likely win. I can’t see ISIS getting many votes in the regions they control and have so devastated. The people in these areas that haven’t been murdered are cowed and terrified and difficult though life may have been under Assad, its was heaven compared with life under ISIS or any of the other terror groups.

    • Assad won’t get many votes. In a free and fair election, *someone else would run*. Someone quite probably from the Assad regime but untainted by Assad’s reputation for terrorism and mass murder.

  3. I have always understood the Russian position to be that Assad should remain until the rebels, of whatever colour, are cleared and a modicum at least of peace is restored so that nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections can be held, at which time Assad’s hat, should he seek to stand, would be in the ring along with any others.

    This is how Putin put it the other day at the Valdai International Discussion Club:

    “The US goal is to get rid of Assad. Probably so. Our goal is to defeat terrorism, fight terror, help President Assad defeat terror, thus creating conditions for the start, and, I hope, successful conclusion of the political settlement process. I believe this is the only right way,”

    Syria was only the final part of that speech, the rest is well worth reading.

    link to

    Assad himself has said he will only continue if the Syrian people want him. Presidential and parliamentary elections are supposed to produce results for the electorate not external interests. Of course politics can be a dirty game, but where is that not true.

    Putin has made it clear all along that his first priority is Daesh which is hardly surprising considering Russia’s own vulnerability to its kind of excess, and it is rational to be seek to work with any bona fide group with similar immediate purposes. Furthermore, Assad is, de facto, the Syrian regime but one day the Syrian regime will be led by another, quite possibly an FSA protégé, so it would appear rational to propose present coöperation. Confronted with any messy situation, the sensible thing is to break in down into compartments, stages, whatever you want to call them, and then tackle them one at a time; as the Red King advised Alice, Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

    As for Iran, Putin isn’t engaged in the current exercise to serve Iran, although peace in the area would benefit the whole world, whether all like the idea or not.

    • Putin is of course talking gibberish, given that Assad is a known terrorist who carpet-bombed peaceful civilians from the air. What is Putin’s actual goal?

  4. If you can’t have real elections in the middle of a civil war the Western plan shows another flaw in insisting Assad must go. He can only be replaced by someone appointed to the leadership and needs Assad to voluntarily step down..

    So far the West has yet to nominate a new Syrian leader. Perhaps Putin should put the cat amongst the pigeons again by suggesting one.

  5. Juan, you make a number of mistakes in this post:

    1) The Russians are not saying Assad will be in transition government, only. The Russian position remains the same, that Assad can run for president, in what remains Russia’s continued call for a political solution.

    2) The Iranians are not wedded to Assad, either. They also state that Assad can run in an upcoming election.

    3) Both Iran and Russia have been saying for some time now, the fate of the Syria is up to Syrians to decide.

    4) You say nobody trusts Assad’s government to conduct free and fair elections. However during the previous Syrian presidential election of 2014, an international delegation of monitors from more than 30 countries including Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Russia (UNSC perm. member), South Africa and Venezuela issued a statement claiming the election was “free, fair and transparent”.

    Brazil, Russia and India represent a large percentage of humanity. I don’t think it appropriate to render them as “nobodies.”

    • There can be no “free and fair” elections without freedom of speech! Is there anyone here that believes there is any kind of free speech in Syria today?
      I have a problem with people talking about elections as a warrant of democracy or even legitimacy.
      The first and unavoidable step to democracy is the forum where everyone can freely debate their opinions. This is where legitimacy is born.
      Please stop reducing democracy to elections, and elections to legitimacy.

    • I suspect that both Iran and Russia would love to ease Assad out in favor of a more competent government allied with them. Assad has both the stench of abuse (bombing civilians) and the stench of incompetence (the bombings didn’t stop the protests at all).

      Can someone analyze the possible players who might be credibly able to step up to replace Assad, with Russian/Iranian backing, but with potential votes from the Syrian people? Those are the men to watch, and I don’t know who they are, but they have got to exist.

  6. Joyce Davis

    It is not serious. At first I was encouraged, but upon further review, Assad will have elections after the terrorists are defeated

  7. I understand the knowledgeable skepticism over what Russia is suggesting, but at least by calling for elections, this would be respective of the rule of law. All, of this after barely a month of decisive military maneuvers by the Russian coalition. I can respect the opinion of Professor Cole, but on the other hand, I can only hope that this Russian influenced political move helps to eliminate Syria’s problems. Too many people have suffered in the Middle East, and now should be a time to support any effort to somehow reintroduce peace back into their peace deprived lives. There are many stories floating around out there in the news world, accusing the American government, and their GCC allies, of rearming the Anti-Assad rebels with even more deadly weapons. How can this be good. America, doesn’t need to furnish more weapons, into this miserable quagmire, as much as America needs a PR person, such as the one advising Putin, to win the hearts and mines of the world. America may spend the most on military hardware and projects, but Putin is beating America on the field. People in the U.S. Administration should read ‘David & Goliath’, or go see a ‘Star Wars’ movie, but truly learn that bigger isn’t always better, and the bigger they are the harder they fall….there is some truth to that, so quit with the war, and arm up with some humanity.

    • I wonder who Putin is listening to. Putin made some gross geopolitical errors in eastern Ukraine… but apparently he saw the error of his ways and moved the troops out. New advisor, maybe?

      I don’t really expect Putin to support real democratic elections. I *hope* he isn’t stupid enough to back Assad, who is tainted in the eyes of the public. The classic *smart* imperialist move in these circumstances is to find a replacement dictator who will act more or less as a Russian puppet but who *isn’t* tainted in the eyes of of the public. But I don’t know if Putin is smart enough to do that — he’s made some very, very poor choices of puppets in the past. Not as bad as the US which has a uniform, perfect track record of always choosing absolutely terrible puppets — but still pretty bad.

  8. Putin is right offering those who who want to, to fight Daesh and later join in the political process. Of course Turkey, S Arabia and the US are not in agreement with Russia and don’t want to join to defeat Daesh. So sorry but Fad&)(; them!

  9. re: Syria, Professor Cole is suspicious of Russia. Less so of the U.S, which is difficult to understand, considering the fact that he didn’t oppose U.S/Nato interventions in Libya (and look what a mess that’s brought about). It should be clear to him by now that while invariably the U.S. offers humanitarian reasons for its interventions, after the government of the targeted nation falls, as far as the U.S. is concerned, said nation can go to hell in a hand-basket (& it usually does). What this shows, of course, that the intervention had nothing to do with humanitarian concerns, much to do with geopolitical interests, especially that of toppling governments that won’t kow-tow to Uncle Sam, so as to expand U.S. hegemony.

  10. “In the end the Mujahidin rejected all this and swept into Kabul. Najib Ullah was hanged from a lamppost.”

    Najib Ullah, was a secular apparatchik ready to cut a deal with the devil, as long as it meant his regime could have stay on top. Instead the US kept backing the Mujahidin. Stupidity on a grand scale. An Afghanistan under Najib Ullah would have never seen the rise of the Taliban, who then in turn played host to Bin Laden.

  11. It is unconscionable that the US, through the CIA, is actually arming and supporting the same ilk of people that were behind 9/11. I’m with you Juan; backing these people is a non-starter. This is a recipe for decades of hell and misery and plenty of blow back. If you are a fundamentalist jihadist fanatic, you are not in any way a friend of the US or anyone who loves true freedom. How is it that our military establishment doesn’t see this? Or is it that they do see it and it is a deliberate policy? Are we really on the side of Muslim fanatics? Sad, sad indeed.

    • Well, there is evidence that the Air Force has been heavily infiltrated by End Times Christian fundamentalist crusaderist fanatics, so they would have a lot in common with Muslim fundamentalist jihadist fanatics.

  12. Assad is doomed. No significant group going to vote for him in an *honest* election — not since he bombed civilians from the air. Regardless of what the other terrorist groups have done.

    It’s possible that Putin has actually figured this out. Maybe. The correct move for Russia is to remove Assad, replacing him with one of Assad’s lieutenants who has relatively clean hands, thus getting a *better class* of puppet dictator. We’ll see if Russia can pull this off.

  13. Whenever I look at one of these failed states which failed because the dictator was a brutal idiot, I think: Look at what the King of Morocco did in reaction to the Arab Spring protests. WAS THAT SO HARD?

    Dictators are so poorly educated these days. Assad clearly never learned anything about how to run a country or how to keep the people pacified. You don’t massacre peaceful protestors — you give them just enough of what they want to calm them down and isolate the radical fringe. You only massacre groups which have managed to achieve *general* unpopularity already.

  14. Such an offer by Russia is at least as plausible as the US pretense to promote democracy everywhere it has in fact left its signature of murder, destruction, and oligarchy. But clearly that is no more likely in Syria than in Iraq or Afghanistan. And it is no more likely in the US gangster state, where only corrupt opportunists gain power with the mass media and elections controlled by the oligarchy of money.

  15. It is certainly more sincere and useful than anything the Axis of Jihad has to offer. ( The Axis of Jihad is composed of the DC FedRegime, the European Capitals, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and all their little head-chopping cannibal liver-eating rebel mascots currently operating in Syria.

Comments are closed.