WASHINGTON - US President Obama
will seek to oust President Bashar al-Assad
under a proposal modeled on the transition in another strife-torn Arab country, Yemen,
the New York Times reported Sunday.
According to the report, the plan calls for a negotiated political settlement that would satisfy Syrian opposition groups but that could leave remnants of Assad’s government in place. Its goal, NYT reported, "Is the kind of transition under way in Yemen," where after months of violent unrest, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down and transfer control to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in an agreement arranged by Yemen’s Arab neighbors.
NYT said the success of the plan hinges on Russia, one of Assad’s staunchest allies, which has strongly opposed his removal.
Russia has blocked any tough United Nations Security Council action against Assad, claiming that it could lead to his forced ouster and the kind of fates suffered by Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, who was killed, or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt,
who was imprisoned and put on trial.
NYT quoted US administration officials as saying that Obama will press the proposal with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin next month at their first meeting since Putin returned to his old post on May 7. Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, raised the plan with Putin in Moscow three weeks ago, according to the report.
American officials told NYT that when Obama brought up the plan with Russian Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev at the Group of 8 meeting at Camp David last weekend, Medvedev appeared receptive, signaling that Russia would prefer that option to other transitions in the Arab upheaval.
Bodies of the Houla victims (Photo: Reuters)
During the meeting, “Medvedev raised the example of Mubarak in a cage,” a senior official told NYT, referring to Mubarak’s confinement at his trial. The official told the newspaper that Obama had then “countered with Yemen, and the indication was, yes, this was something we could talk about.”
According to NYT, Russian leaders are fearful that Syria
is their last bastion of influence in the Middle East. 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.
Dimitri K. Simes, a Russia expert and president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington, told NYT that the Russians "now consider President Assad a liability, but Putin doesn’t like having his clients removed one after another by the United States, and he considers Assad his client.”
US officials told NYT 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 told the newspaper, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Our interest is in stabilizing the situation, not eliminating Russian influence.”
“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,” Robert Malley, head of the Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group, told NYT.
“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.”