Russia’s Syrian Ballet

EDWARD BURKE – It is important to remember that Russia’s involvement in Syria is based on Cold War memories.  

United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton claimed that Russia is supplying Syria with advanced weapons which the Assad regime has deployed against Turkish-, Saudi-, and Qatari-supported militia. Is this “proxy-conflict” in Syria indicative of broader geopolitical tension in the region?

Russia sees itself right now as being in a bind. On the one hand, it is under pressure from the West not to supply arms — for example, attack helicopters — to the Assad regime. But at the same time, politicians in the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense are very concerned about the possible escalation of armaments coming from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries. Russian leaders do know that “the writing is on the wall” for the Syrian government, they know that they have to negotiate a way out from this escalating crisis. Yet they are simultaneously very concerned lest Syria crumble too quickly: what they see as a repercussion of that possible dissolution is that Syria and possibly Lebanon will descend into chaos, which is something the Russians view with great alarm.

Russia is very trenchant in terms of its views on Islamic extremism or terrorism; they believe the West is far too trusting of, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood. They do not understand how, in their view, western leaders can be duped into supporting and even turning a blind eye to the arming of groups that they see as too extreme. Some Russian diplomats think westerners are naive, have no plans for a realistic transition of power in Syria, and have not considered — with regards to the United Nations resolutions tabled from the West — what happens the day after these resolutions come into effect: who governs, who keeps the peace, and who prevents extremist organizations from taking power in parts of the country? Some Russian diplomats are truly quite stupefied by what they perceive as naiveté and lack of competence in reaching a diplomatic solution.

 Despite these allegations, Russian arms shipments have been presumably arriving in Damascus for months. Should international leaders be cautious of becoming overly-alarmed by Secretary Clinton’s most recent claims? 

I did not learn anything from Clinton’s statement that I had not already suspected to be true. I had long believed that Russia had been cooperating militarily with Syria. Many diplomats in the Russian Ministry of Defense have not moved past the mindset that says “we will back our allies, and we cannot be seen as backing down from them, for we would be seen as internationally weak.” That type of logic, in many ways, has a Cold War legacy, when both sides — the US and the USSR — backed allied regimes lest one “fell” to the enemy. Of course, Moscow’s influence has diminished significantly in the world since 1991; but nevertheless, Russia does not want to be seen as deserting an ally simply because the West has deemed such a desertion necessary.

I think many westerners underestimate, to their peril, the anger that exists in Moscow over what they perceived to be an abuse of the UN Security Council Resolutions on Libya. Russia may be playing a rather devious game; they are clearly not admitting that they are supporting the Syrian regime, but I have no doubt that contacts between the two nations exist, and Russian supplies continue to flow into Damascus.

Secretary Clinton did not say anything groundbreaking; however, the timing of her statement was quite interesting. Confirmation of the kind of intelligence on which Clinton was reporting takes time. On 12 July Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that he wanted an international group to monitor the Syrian government: something very similar to what Kofi Annan wanted. It does seem odd that hours later Secretary Clinton makes her claim; she would not have made such a claim unless the intelligence was highly accurate, so there is no reason to doubt what she said. It is also puzzling why Clinton felt it necessary to make her statement a week before the start of serious State Department negotiations with Iran in Moscow about Tehran’s nuclear weapons. This is not “Kissinger Diplomacy” — it is not empirical realpolitik — and seems rather naive.

What affect does Secretary Clinton’s timing have on the ongoing attempts to create a more peaceful resolution to the crisis? 

Always in Moscow there is a sort of hawk-dovish divide — which, since Putin’s reelection, has become even more accentuated — between those who are wary of western positions and those who are more understanding. Lavrov has put quite a bit of leverage on the line; he certainly would not have declared that Russia would be willing to visit a “post-Assad Syria” without having been granted permission from the upper echelons of his government. Russia has thus come out to make quite a bold statement, that they would be willing to let go of an ally, given the international relations doctrine to which the country ascribes. They understand that a transition must occur, and Russia does seem to believe in the “Annan Plan.” To retain part of their influence they absolutely need to support a transition process which maintains enough of the current regime to in turn retain their influence, while at the same time compromise with the opposition.

For Secretary Clinton to say what she did now was poor judgement. Analysts everywhere had been fairly confident that Russia had been supplying Syria with weapons for quite some time, and Clinton’s timing sends the message to Moscow that western leaders are not willing to deal with the Russian overtures or initiatives. It seemed almost a retort, given the mere hours between Lavrov’s and Clinton’s statements.

Morally, the arming of the Syrian regime is repugnant, and is very hard to defend. But in terms of actually finding a solution that brings the key regional backers of the involved parties to the negotiating table, and hammering out a difficult yet essential diplomatic solution, cooperation with Russia is critical. It seems that the United States is not willing to do that. What other alternatives do international leaders have in Syria? If the US had engaged in the international contact group that Annan had wanted to create several months ago — which it did not — there would have been alternatives; the problem is that right now there is no serious diplomatic effort to end the crisis, which is disappointing. The West often appears to be high on criticism and rhetoric; it is not willing to intervene militarily, so it is talking very loudly but carries no big stick.

There has been very little thought put in to the governance of a post-Assad Syria; there appears to be no western leader who has a clear plan for achieving a stable rulership in the future. There needs to be a solution whereby parts of the regime can find a way out of the conflict; the regime feels right now that its back is against the wall, and it must keep fighting or die. The Russian plan could provide this alternative, but the US has effectively stopped it.

Russia’s intransigence about pushing for regime change in Damascus on the Security Council is a significant barrier to ending the conflict from a UN standpoint. How can UN policymakers incorporate Russian interests into a potential plan for ending the crisis?

Consistently, military intervention has been ruled out, which thus necessitates the practice of real diplomacy through sanctions and other economic and political efforts. How can the West deal diplomatically with Syria? There was a time when western leaders spoke with regimes that they did not like, and would hammer out some type of deal: that would never absolve war criminals of their crimes, but that kind of conversation would allow a situation to evolve towards greater stability and democracy. There are many examples of this method: recently, in Egypt and Yemen, large parts of these countries’ military apparatuses have been left intact, which was a necessary and messy compromise. In South Africa, western leaders insisted — even though a rather heinous regime had committed terrible crimes against the opposition — that the regime be given a way out: there were no counter-massacres or an escalation of violence.

Of course, one can never allow certain figures who have committed such awful crimes to be part of a new Syria, but there needs to be a way to ensure that the regime does not have continued support simply because people in the Alawite, Christian, or even parts of the Kurdish community think that the alternative is sectarian violence and chaos. Talking to the regime is better than allowing the current trend to continue: it seems odd that the West is eager to cut off all diplomatic links with Syria when it has no other diplomatic options.

How has the Syrian crisis affected the Washington-Moscow relationship? 

The Americans have been perceived as having harshly rebuffed the Russian overture. The Russians know that they have to negotiate a compromise because they understand that the Assad regime is doomed. That rebuff has undoubtedly strained relations to an extent. There are already tensions developing now in the Moscow-Washington relationship, with Putin back in power. Even with Russia’s World Trade membership, the country seems to be already breaking a litany of rules that were agreed upon during Medvedev’s presidency. There has been a mood change in Moscow, and the era of more “workman like” relations is over.

It seems that traditional political rivalries may be at the heart of Russia’s reluctance to cooperate with western countries; does Russia’s policy today have a Cold War legacy, perhaps given the Soviet experience farther east in Afghanistan?

Russia is very much the heir to the Kissinger diplomatic legacy; they look at the world as a geopolitical chessboard, and they do not think in terms of the same moral equations many western nations put into their policies. Lavrov is a diplomat, for example, straight from the Soviet school of diplomacy: Russian interests first and always. Russia finds utility with the UN occasionally, but that does not mean it is dedicated to renewing and always supporting international mechanisms of governance; they use these mechanisms to advance their own interests.

Russia thinks in brutal realpolitik terms, seeing the international stage as a chessboard — a rather diminishing one. Russia is still quite insecure about the decline that it suffered in the 1990s and the hemorrhaging of influence in that period. They do not want to see the West become too powerful an actor in Syria, nor do they want to see the type of Islamist organizations that they believe are at the core of the opposition take control unilaterally.

Russia’s support for Assad has been matched by China, although the latter may be operating with different goals. Has the Moscow-Beijing relationship been affected by each country’s involvement in Syria?

China is most concerned by the unrest in the Middle East because it has serious commercial interests in the region, not particularly with Syria (which is Moscow’s relationship). Certainly China does not want to see this type of regional tension to continue indefinitely right now, because it sees a real risk of regional conflagration. The Middle East is a critical region for China’s economic development, and it wants less war so that it can essentially get on with business. Although the Chinese do want a political solution in Syria, they are also sympathetic to Russia’s concern over a UN resolution that gives the West a disproportionate amount of purview.

It is interesting that when Annan proposed his contact group in the UN, he engendered far more support from these supposed recalcitrant members of the Security Council than he did from western nations. Russia and China simply have a more empirical way of looking at global politics, asking themselves “where is the power and who controls that power.” Leaders in these two countries do not understand how western diplomats content themselves in simply lashing out rhetorically but not taking action.

How have US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, and the Arab Spring’s upheaval this past year, affected the way in which Moscow views the importance of the conflict in Syria, and its role in the greater Middle East region?

Leaders in Moscow — and Lavrov himself — were critical participants in debates about the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, and some wondered whether the UN could ever recover from the resulting rift. Russia is still smarting from a real resentment of US unilateralism and the hypocrisy the US expressed over Russia’s 2008 operations in Georgia, for example. But what they also resent about Iraq is that they believe US leaders stripped the country in 2003-2004 of foreign commercial interests by canceling major contracts: that there was a clear wish to punish Russia in Iraq for not backing the US war there. This memory does influence how Russians view Syria: they think that if there is US military intervention in Syria they will completely lose all influence in the region.

The question of whether Syria is experiencing a legitimate civil war or another iteration of domestic conflict has been debated in policy circles. How should we define “Civil War” in relation to Syria given foreign involvement there? 

Most civil wars always have serious external backers. This was the case with regards to the most recent and egregious civil war in terms of loss of life in the Congo. Domestic problems often spark the conflict, while external misperceptions and interests fuel the fighting.

The fighting in Syria is a civil war, but it is absolutely being fueled by outside patronage. The regime could not have survived this long without the active support of its neighbors — Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and to a slightly lesser degree, Russia. And the insurgency’s increasing capability can be directly linked to intervention by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Yet the opposition is not unified, nor does it offer an alternative to the current government. Thus it is hard to imagine that the Syrians will work out this conflict for themselves: the only way a stabilizing compromise — albeit imperfect — can be reached is by enumerating the bottom lines of each player with a stake in this fight, and draft a plan along what each player can tolerate.

Ultimately, nobody stands to gain from an escalation of violence in Syria. I would prefer to see a slow evolution in Syria rather than a rapid deterioration that results in massacres and regional sectarian violence.


EDWARD BURKE is a research fellow on EU foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform in London. From 2010 to 2011 he was Deputy Head of the International Police Coordination Board-Secretariat in Kabul, Afghanistan. Between 2007 and 2010, he worked as a Researcher at the Foundation for International Relations (FRIDE) in Madrid, Spain, focusing on EU policies towards political reform and security in the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to a wide range of international media, including the New York Times, The Guardian, the Irish Times, and El Pais. 

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