Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi is due in Moscow early next week. According to Al Ahram, El-Arabi will meet with senior Russian officials and discuss the Syrian crisis. His visit comes only one week after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered his toughest comments to date. “For us the red line is clear,” Lavrov told reporters on January 18. “We won’t back any sanctions or deployment of troops in Syria.”
Earlier today, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s steadfast reluctance, saying that Russia’s draft UN resolution–which places equal blame on the opposition and Assad’s army–is the only way forward. According to Lavrov: “We believe that our approach is fair and well-balanced, unlike the attempts to pass one-sided resolutions that would condemn only one party and, by doing so, encourage another one to build up confrontation and take an uncompromising stance.” The U.S. and others refuse to adopt Russia’s language on the matter because it excuses the regime.
According to Arab League officials, as reported by Al Ahram, El-Arabi’s visit to Moscow sounds ambitious–probably too ambitious. Firstly, the Arab League will try and convince Russia to pressure Assad into leaving office. This plan, like the plan recently adopted in Yemen resulting in the departure of that country’s president, requires Assad to hand over power to his Vice President, with the expectation that elections follow and the regime is dissolved. Should that fail, El-Arabi will ask Russia to “encourage Damascus to permit entry to a high level Arab League delegation to discuss the power transfer initiative.”
Fat chance. Assad has already dismissed the Arab League plan. Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid al-Mu’allim, told a news conference yesterday that the League could go “to the moon” for all he cared. He also claimed Russian support at the UN Security Council would never waver.
This now is the trick: the League’s power transfer initiative was dead on arrival; it must now seek to change Moscow’s posture, and in so doing allow for international action. Any new sanctions would be impossible without Moscow. Even if the Arab League only wants support for its transition plan then it has to get Russia behind it. China, for its part, has taken a cautious line when speaking about Syria, saying only that their actions are in line with the UN as of today. In October, China and Russia issued a rare “double veto” at the Security Council. That move prevented the UN from adopting a resolution that threatened future measures. Of the two, China may be the easiest to flip. But altering Russia’s mindset is possible also, contrary to what Foreign Minister Mu’Allim says, especially now that the League is pushing a new UN resolution next week.
And so El-Arabi’s meeting should focus just as much on the new Arab consensus as it does on the Arab League’s bold plan. The Russians should be reminded that they are now being labeled accomplices of the regime. A recent mysterious arms shipment only confirms as much. Beyond this, the Arab League observer mission has failed to curb violence significantly–meaning the only option left is the UN Security Council, where Russia would be asked to either side with popular opinion or Assad. No one is eager for military intervention, mind you. El-Arabi would be wise to stress this above all. A new UN resolution should be limited to sanctions and condemnation; it should not open the door for a Libyan sequel. Arab League representatives should make this clear to Russian officials. These reassurances–combined with the cumulative weight of world-wide outrage–may be enough to move Russia in the right direction.
Such a move would still have to overcome one major obstacle. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week on the size and scope of Russian-Syrian arms deals. According to the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade in Moscow (as cited by CSM), Syria is Russia’s seventh largest arms customer, importing 10% of Russia’s total arms sold over the last decade. If the UN implemented an arms embargo, Russia could lose $5 billion over the next few years. Correspondent Fred Weir makes a point that ties up the Russian predicament nicely: “The loss of the Syrian market would be a huge blow to Russia’s arms export industry, which has already lost an estimated $4.5 billion in lost contracts with Libya and as much as $13 billion due to UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.”
Has Russia’s appetite for action reached its limit thanks to billion-dollar losses in the double digits? It’s hard to tell. But El-Arabi should stress in private that Russia stands to lose a lot more if Assad falls. Certainly those who take power from him or after him will look less kindly on a country that supported his crackdown until the bitter end. It’s also worth noting that the chances of Russia being paid are slim given the severity of the crisis.
The Arab League’s flaws are many. But at this juncture even a broken institution can serve a vital purpose. The League can push the Syrian issue at the UN, as it has already promised to do, while paying specific attention to Russian reservations, in the hopes that Moscow holsters its veto and Beijing has no interest in a showdown. Don’t be surprised if the Arab League is up to the task.