Misreading Russia in Syria

Author's Note: Some of the ideas in this short essay were born from a conversation I had with Mr. Edward Burke of the Center for European Reform, to whom I owe due thanks.

Hilary Clinton’s June 12 accusation against Russia put forward nothing new. And what is worse, it could not have come at a worse time. Only three days earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the “urgent” need for an international conference to prevent Syria’s further slide into civil war, to force all parties “to sit down at the negotiating table after first halting the violence.” This plan -- markedly similar to Kofi Annan’s proposal -- belies a great sacrifice by the Russian leadership, but one on which the Secretary failed to capitalize.

Russia’s foreign policy is rooted in a Cold War psychology. Lavrov and his Foreign Ministry view international politics as a geopolitical chess game. It would be no stretch to say that Lavrov has acted as Russia’s “new Kissinger,” seeking to maintain Russian influence at any cost: quintessential realpolitik. Moscow’s influence has diminished since 1991, but Russia’s support for the Assad regime is rooted in Moscow’s desire to maintain its ally in Damascus, and appear powerful in the face of western opinion: the last thing Lavrov wants is to cave to Washington’s desires.

So why would he make such a concession? Russian leaders know that Assad’s days are numbered. The only realistic option for Moscow now is to push for a compromise, evinced by their desire for an international conference. Such an entity would provide parts of the Syrian government with an “escape hatch” from the conflict. Without the threat of vengeful massacres or reprisals against Assad loyalists, support for the government would shrink. Indeed, much of the regime’s support comes from those who fear for Syria’s security in a post-Assad region, not pro-government idealists.

It is thus important to see that Lavrov put quite a bit of leverage on the line over the last few days. He could only make his proposal after being given permission from the highest echelons in the Russian government. The fact that he was able to offer Russian support for such a multilateral conference indicates that Russian diplomats are finally realizing that it is in their best interests to maintain some of their influence in Syria lest they lose it all: for Russian leaders to express a willingness to work towards a “post-Assad Syria” is relatively groundbreaking.  An internationally-brokered compromise with the opposition is essential to this envisaged transition.

Secretary Clinton’s accusation derailed these significant steps. Coming hours after Lavrov’s most recent concessions, her words can easily be seen as a rebuke against the Russian government, and will likely be interpreted as such in Moscow. It has been a poorly-kept secret that Russia has been delivering weapons to Syria for a long time, and the intelligence which supported her claims takes a very long time to verify. Clinton’s timing sends the clear message that the United States continues to be unwilling to work with Moscow towards any solution except that which Washington prescribes.

This type of unilateralism is extremely harmful. It is easy to underestimate or forget the anger Russian leaders still feel about American actions in 2002-2003 during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, against which they were strongly opposed. The ensuing rift in the Security Council between these two powers led some analysts to wonder if the United Nations could survive. This resentment has only been exacerbated by the most recent accusations. Indeed, the way Russia interpreted Clinton’s words becomes painfully clear in Moscow’s most recent refusal on July 5 to attend international talks aimed at halting the bloodshed in Syria, a meeting spearheaded by the United States, France, Britain and Germany. Russia intransigence further inspired China to boycott the meeting as well. If the United States ignores any movement by Russia towards accepting a proposal for slow but steady peace, the comprehensive victory envisaged by Washington will become even more of an impossibility.

A solution to the Syria crisis will require Russian involvement. Such cooperation is not as difficult to achieve as it may seem: Russian diplomats, headed by Lavrov, are ready to negotiate.  Arming the Syrian regime against its own citizens is indefensible. Yet, Washington cannot continue to ignore the goals and motivations of those groups that are backing the regime, especially Russia. It is critical to bring these groups to the negotiating table so that a difficult but necessary compromise can be extruded, albeit painfully.

Syrian government leaders feel right now as if they are faced with a “do or die” reality. The international community must offer a third way out, whereby parts of the regime can realize it is in their best interest to end the conflict. The Russian plan would create such an avenue, but Clinton’s accusations risk killing it.

Recently, Moscow declared that it would stop supplying the Syrian government with weapons, specifically the Yak-130 attack aircraft; however, this declaration is yet shaky, and it is unclear whether Russia will discontinue current shipments, or simply stop supplying new arms. To solidify these important steps forward, and to keep the Syrian war “small,” the US government should learn from the diplomatic mistake it made in June.

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Tags : diplomacy, Russia, Syria

Comments

Actually, Russia's stance hasn't changed all that much. It has been consistently advocating the Syrian establishment and opposition sit down and talk, and compromise. Even the Iranians have been advocating such. But the opposition, for a a variety of reasons, such as street credibility, political jockeying and Western patronage, has so far refused.

Recent Russian arms transfers to Syria are about as low-key as recent American transfers of security-related equipment to the militaries of Bahrain and Egypt.