The road to Damascus runs through Moscow

The Syrian National Council (SNC) issued its Covenant this week, while the Friends of Syria today issued the Chairman’s conclusions from its meeting in Istanbul.

Friends of Syria is a group of countries and international organizations that are supporting “the just cause of the Syrian people,” which they define as a transition away from dictatorship and towards democracy.  Its statement is a tawdry model of diplomatic waffling.  Mostly it reiterates things said previously, without the means or the will to make them happen.  As Ian Black, The Guardian’s Middle East editor tweeted to me, “awful! reeks of urge to sound purposeful + united while ignoring toughest questions. diplomacy of lowest common denominator.”

Ironically, since Syria’s international friends have criticized the SNC repeatedly for its failure to outline a vision of the New Syria, the SNC statement is a model of clarity.  The New Syria will be “a civil, democratic, pluralistic, independent and free state”:

Syria’s new democratic order will be founded on the principle of “unity in diversity” and will embrace all individuals and communities without any exclusion or discrimination.

If this is not explicit enough, the Covenant specifies:

The constitution will ensure non-discrimination between any of the religious, ethnic or national components of Syrian society – Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turkmens or others. It will recognize equal rights for all within the context of Syria’s territorial and demographic integrity and unity.

It is hard to beat this for clarity.

There is an important moment of fuzziness in the Covenant, though it could be a translation issue or just something on which I don’t have the required background. It says:

The transitional government will be committed to hold free and fair elections upon the fall of the current, illegitimate regime. A constituent assembly, formed by the transitional government, will engage in drafting a new constitution containing the principles of this Covenant and submit it to a free referendum.

Does the transitional government form the constituent assembly? It seems to me the constituent assembly should be the result of the elections. And who forms the transitional government? Does it exist before the constituent assembly elections and continue after them?  How is it chosen?  Or does the constituent assembly choose the transitional government?  These are not small questions.  I’ll hope that there is more clarity about them than in the English translation of the Covenant.

Of course the main question now is how to begin a transition when Bashar al Assad is still holding on to power, with pretty solid support from the Syrian army and security services as well as the country’s diplomats.  Sadly, the Friends of Syria offer nary a hint, apart from urging no arms sales and tightening of sanctions.  Humanitarian assistance, which the Friends emphasize, is not going to be sufficient to initiate the political dialogue that Kofi Annan’s plan calls for.  If the revolutionaries are able to unsettle Damascus, spreading peaceful demonstrations throughout the capital, that would make a big difference.

The missing international piece of this puzzle is Russia.  It has to be convinced to read Bashar the riot act.  Only the Americans can hope to bring Moscow around to do this.  The road to Damascus runs through Moscow.

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