Russia looks to capitalise on a stalled peace plan in Syria
It is never easy to tell when a succession of violent acts amounts to a civil war. But the news on Wednesday evening of another Syrian massacre, in which some 80 people are said to have been killed in the village of Qubair near Hama, looks like a watershed.
The peace plan put forward by Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League mediator, and approved by both the Syrian regime and the opposition, was already on its last legs. The ceasefire it called for is being ignored by both sides. The question now is what, if anything, Mr Annan can do to gain control of a situation that has slipped out of his grasp.
The reported deaths in Qubair seem to fall into the same pattern as the Houla massacre two weeks ago, where over 100 people were killed. The Syrian army softens up a rebel-held area with tanks and artillery, and then sends in regime-aligned thugs from nearby villages to slaughter men, women and children.
In Damascus, the regime clings to the fiction that foreign-funded "terrorists" are to blame for the massacres, though there is not a shred of evidence to back this up. Syria is clearly descending into sectarian conflict, with the regime's core supporters, the minority Alawites, who make up some 12 per cent of the population, serving as auxiliaries.
That is not to say that the rebel Free Syrian Army is sitting on its hands. Almost nightly Syrian television broadcasts the funerals of soldiers, and the military hospitals are filled with the injured. We must assume that these are the victims of Free Syrian Army attacks, not just army defectors who were shot for changing sides.
In the centre of this whirlwind sits the newly re-elected Russian president, Vladimir Putin, foremost backer of the Syrian regime. Perhaps the only thing that all sides agree on is the centrality of Mr Putin, and this puts him in a position of great diplomatic leverage which he is determined to exploit.
If this were a poker game, the chips would be the lives of Syrians. It began in early February when Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, and the Annan mission was set up to heal the rift.
By journalistic tradition, the Annan plan is called a "peace plan". Its goal may be peace, but all diplomats know that its primary purpose is to get all sides engaged and start a process that may or may not reach a conclusion. The problem with such plans is that they have to be bland enough to suit all sides, and they lack any means of enforcement.
Seeing the imminent collapse of Mr Annan's plan, the Russians have now raised the stakes. They want to include Iran in a contact group that would align the policies of outside powers towards Syria. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, insists this contact group should displace the existing "Friends of the Syrian People" grouping, made up of countries that want Bashar Al Assad toppled and which is meeting in Paris in early July.
Mr Lavrov is demanding a less "disproportional representation" of countries in Paris with, in addition to Iran, both Russia and China. Clearly a meeting under the Russian formula would be less about regime change and more about regime preservation.
This idea of bringing Iran into the fold is unlikely to fly in Washington. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, told a gathering in Istanbul that the US was insisting on nothing less than complete regime change in Syria, what an aide to Mrs Clinton called a "post-Assad transition strategy, including Assad's full transfer of power". This prompted speculation that she was preparing to abandon the search for consensus at the UN and go it alone in removing the Syrian leader.
But this raises the question of who and how. The starting point for the Russian defence of the Assad regime, and that regime's ruthless military response to the opposition, is the shared assessment that US President Barack Obama is weak and unwilling to risk going to war in Syria, particularly when he has to face a war-weary electorate in November.
If the western powers are in a mess, they have themselves to blame. The Annan plan, as the Russians never cease to point out, does not call for regime change, but only political dialogue. The Americans are calling on Mr Al Assad to engage the opposition in dialogue and then consign himself to history. From Moscow's perspective, the Americans are trying to turn the Annan plan into a Trojan horse.
Given the end point of western policy it is hard to see why Mr Al Assad should even start the dialogue if, at the end of it, he and his cohorts are going to be removed, and their Alawite co-religionists left to the mercy of the Sunni majority.
We can be assured that the US and its allies will exert efforts to keep the Russians engaged. The message will be passed to Mr Putin that the Assad clan is on its way out, and he should join the winning side. Convincing Mr Putin of this may not be a totally lost cause, if the price is right.
A new policy analysis published by the Carnegie Moscow Centre warns foreign leaders not to treat Mr Putin as an immovable ideologue. "Putin is a transactional, results-orientated politician. He can be an important and valuable partner, but he will bargain hard to get the best deal he can. Despite the increasingly complex and complicated nature of ruling Russia, Putin still has all the domestic authority he requires to pursue his foreign policy objectives."
So what are his objectives? Top of the list must be not allowing the US to use the UN Security Council as a green light to change regimes that Washington does not like. Ultimately Russia wants to keep the upper hand on dealing with the Syrian crisis, and to maximise its rather weak position in the region. These goals do not in principle exclude the possibility of an orderly transfer of power in Damascus to some more credible leader than Mr Assad, who is clearly not cut out for the job. Unfortunately, it is probably already too late for that.
On Twitter @aphilps
Updated: June 8, 2012 04:00 AM