If one needed a textbook example of how propaganda can help turn defeat into victory then one should look at Western media coverage of recent diplomatic battles on Syria.
Everybody agrees that the so-called “presidential statement” on Syria the U.N. Security Council adopted on March 21 was a turning point in efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. It marked the first time the Security Council (SC) had reached an agreement on Syria and endorsed a peace plan proposed by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The surprise consensus in the Council, which was earlier riven by divisions, raised the question of who had made concessions — Western powers or Russia and China, who had vetoed two West-backed SC resolutions.
To believe Western news outlets it is Russia and China that blinked first.
Christian Science Monitor saw Russia's support for the SC statement as a “distinct shift” in Moscow's stance. Radio Free Europe said Moscow had “finally relented,” while the Economist categorically declared: “Russia shifted firmly to the side of Al Assad's detractors.”
The text of the SC statement, however, shows that it is the West that embraced the Russian stand.
First, the statement did not mention the West's earlier demand for Mr. Assad to step down. (The February SC draft did not openly call on Mr. Assad to leave but voiced support for the Arab League's plan, which explicitly demanded his resignation as a precondition for political settlement in Syria.)
Second, the Western powers for the first time endorsed the Russian view that the opposition in Syria should talk to the government. The SC statement said that the Syrian crisis should be resolved through “a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.”
In line with Russian proposals
Third, the SC statement addressed the demand to stop the fighting, not only to the government forces, as the West had insisted earlier, but also to the opposition, as Russia had demanded all along.
Finally, the SC statement did not contain any threats of sanctions or foreign military intervention in Syria that were implied in previous Western drafts.
Moscow had good reason to heartily welcome the SC statement.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said the document was “in line with the proposals Russia has been advocating from the very beginning.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explained what made consensus possible.
“I'm very glad that our [Security Council] colleagues have finally… abandoned ultimatums, threats and attempts to resolve [the Syrian crisis] by making demands to the government only.”
The Arab League has also backed away from “ultimatums”: its head Nabil al-Arabi said that the group is “unlikely” to call for Al Assad to step down at its current summit in Iraq.
Ground realities in Syria have vindicated Russia's assumptions and proved the West wrong.
First, the Syrian regime has turned out to be much stronger than many expected, thanks in part to Russia's and Iran's military aid. Large sections of the Syrian population see Al Assad as their best guarantee against inter-confessional violence that may erupt if the ruling regime falls.
Second, the Syrian opposition has failed to unite and speak in one voice. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that she does not see in Syria “the elements of an opposition that is actually viable.”
Third, al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist groups have established a foothold in Syria raising the spectre of another Iraq.
The strategy of having armed opposition topple the Syrian regime with outside help failed and the West was forced to listen to Russia's arguments and accept that Russia has a key role to play in settling the Syrian crisis. The initiative has passed to Moscow.
“I share the view that this is a big victory for Russian diplomacy,” said Vitaly Naumkin, head of the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies. “Even the U.S. is edging closer to the Russian stand.”
Russia has said all along that it is not defending the Syrian leaders, but upholding the principle of international law and the interests of regional stability. As far back as last August, Mr. Medvedev had urged Al Assad to “carry out urgent reforms, come to terms with the opposition, restore peace and create a modern state,” if he had wanted to stay in power.
“If he cannot do this, a sad fate awaits him,” the Russian leader had warned.
Last week Mr. Lavrov stated that the Syrian leadership had not only “responded incorrectly to the very first manifestations of the peaceful protests,” but was still “making a lot of mistakes” that are aggravating the crisis.
Mr. Lavrov made it clear that Moscow is not against Al Assad's eventual departure, but this has to be the decision of Syrians themselves.
“I'm convinced that if a comprehensive dialogue is launched involving all members of the opposition and the government, then it should be possible to solve all questions within this framework, including the question of who would lead Syria during the transition period, the way it was done in Yemen.”
In Russia's view this scenario of power transition for Syria is not equivalent to foreign-engineered forceful “regime change” advocated by the West.
The unanimous support in the U.N. Security Council for Mr. Annan's plan focused on facilitating an intra-Syrian dialogue means that Russia's approach has won the day.