|President Obama, with Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia at Camp David, proposed a political transition in Syria. Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev|
By HELENE COOPER and MARK LANDLER
Published: May 26, 2012
WASHINGTON — In a new effort to halt more than a year of bloodshed in Syria, President Obama will push for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad under a proposal modeled on the transition in another strife-torn Arab country, Yemen.
The plan calls for a negotiated political settlement that would satisfy Syrian opposition groups but that could leave remnants of Mr. Assad’s government in place. Its goal is the kind of transition under way in Yemen, where after months of violent unrest, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down and hand control to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in a deal arranged by Yemen’s Arab neighbors. Mr. Hadi, though later elected in an uncontested vote, is viewed as a transitional leader.
The success of the plan hinges on Russia, one of Mr. Assad’s staunchest allies, which has strongly opposed his removal.
In the past year, Russia has blocked any tough United Nations Security Council action against Mr. Assad, arguing that it could lead to his forced ouster and the kind of fates suffered by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, who was killed, or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who was imprisoned and put on trial. But Russia is facing intense international pressure to use its influence to bring about the removal of Mr. Assad as the killings in Syria continue unabated, including the massacre of more than 90 people in a village near Homs that was reported by United Nations officials on Saturday.
The Yemen example has been widely discussed in Moscow, so much so that the option has become known by its Russian term, “the Yemenskii Variant,” even in the United States. In part, that reflects Russia’s desperation for a solution to the crisis in Syria, where, the United Nations says, thousands of civilians have been killed since protests began there in March of last year.
Mr. Obama, administration officials said, will press the proposal with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia next month at their first meeting since Mr. Putin returned to his old post on May 7. Thomas E. Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, raised the plan with Mr. Putin in Moscow three weeks ago.
When Mr. Obama brought it up with Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia at the Group of 8 meeting at Camp David last weekend, Mr. Medvedev appeared receptive, American officials said, signaling that Russia would prefer that option to other transitions in the Arab upheaval. During the meeting, “Medvedev raised the example of Mubarak in a cage,” a senior official said, referring to Mr. Mubarak’s confinement at his trial. The official, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the discussions, said Mr. Obama had then “countered with Yemen, and the indication was, yes, this was something we could talk about.”
In a region convulsed by political uprisings, Russian leaders are fearful that Syria is their last bastion of influence. Syria is Moscow’s main Middle East ally, home to a Russian naval base and extensive Russian oil and gas investments. It is also a major trading partner and buyer of Russian arms.
“The Russians now consider President Assad a liability,” said Dimitri K. Simes, a Russia expert and president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “But Putin doesn’t like having his clients removed one after another by the United States, and he considers Assad his client.”
American officials say they are ready to reassure their Russian counterparts that Moscow would be able to maintain its close ties in a post-Assad Syria. “Look, we recognize that Russia wants to have a continued influence in Syria,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Our interest is in stabilizing the situation, not eliminating Russian influence.”
While Mr. Medvedev did not knock down Mr. Obama’s recent suggestion to seek a political transition based on the Yemen model, he did not exactly sign on, either. In any case, Mr. Putin will almost certainly make the decision, particularly given the flak that Mr. Medvedev has received in Moscow. Critics there contend that when Mr. Medvedev was president, he should never have given in to pressure from Western countries last year to refrain from blocking the United Nations resolution that established a no-fly zone in Libya, which the critics assert led to the NATO airstrikes that helped topple Colonel Qaddafi.
Mr. Putin has already gotten off to a bumpy start with Mr. Obama, who waited several days to call and congratulate him on his election after a campaign in which Mr. Putin accused the United States of helping to orchestrate protests in other countries, including Russia. And even if Mr. Putin does agree to the Yemen model, it is unclear if he and Mr. Obama have the same definition of what that model is — or how to put it into effect.
“For Washington, the most important aspect of the Yemen model is its assumption, from the outset, that the leader — in this case, Bashar Assad — will exit,” said Robert Malley, head of the Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group. “For Moscow, its most important feature is the endorsement of a very gradual process that preserves the basic structures of the regime and in which the leader is not unceremoniously kicked out.”
While that is not an unbridgeable gap, said Mr. Malley, who was recently in Moscow for talks on Syria, “it’s one that hasn’t been bridged so far.”
Russia’s openness to the Yemen model, skeptics said, is motivated less by a desire to remove Mr. Assad than to forestall American-led military action. Some experts warned that the biggest risk to the proposal is that it becomes too closely identified with the Obama administration.
“There’s a deep strain of anti-Americanism at the heart of Putin’s Kremlin,” said Carroll Bogert, a deputy executive director of Human Rights Watch, who has also discussed the Yemen option with Russian officials. “When a proposal is perceived as something the Americans want, it can automatically become less desirable to the Russians.”
Still, she and other human rights activists said the plan was worth trying, even if the odds are against winning wholehearted Russian backing, much less the acquiescence of Mr. Assad.
An agreement could also help Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin present at least the appearance that their relationship is not in a downward spiral after Mr. Putin skipped the Group of 8 summit, which Mr. Obama hosted. The move was widely viewed as a slap at the Obama administration.
The biggest problem with the Yemen model, several experts said, is that Yemen and Syria are starkly different countries. In Yemen, Mr. Saleh kept his grip on power for three decades by reconciling competing interests through a complex system of patronage. When his authority collapsed, there was a vice president, Mr. Hadi, who was able to assert enough control over Yemen’s splintered security forces to make him a credible transitional leader.
In Syria, by contrast, Mr. Assad oversees a security state in which his minority Alawite sect fears that if his family is ousted, it will face annihilation at the hands of the Sunni majority. That has kept the government remarkably cohesive, cut down on military defections and left Mr. Assad in a less vulnerable position than Mr. Saleh. Even if he leaves, American officials conceded, there is no obvious candidate to replace him.“The Assad regime is galvanized against these kinds of splits,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That’s one reason it has been so hard to crack this regime.”