x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Russia's veto on Syria fuelled first by its worries at home

The Russian veto of the UN Security Council's Syria resolution has roots in Vladimir Putin's concerns about stability within Russia itself.

The Syrian regime has much to thank the Russians for. By vetoing a United Nations resolution demanding withdrawal of Syria's armed forces to barracks, the Kremlin has, in the words of the Syrian government newspaper Tishrin, displayed "realism and objectivity".

Most of western Europe, the US and much of the Arab world has a different view: the Kremlin has given Bashar Al Assad a blank cheque - and 60 tonnes of ammunition - to wipe out the lightly armed opposition holed up in the city of Homs.

Despite its protestations that it is working for a peaceful transition of power, Russia is now identified in most minds as President Al Assad's strategic ally. It is worth asking: to what extent is this based on a policy of "realism"?

Kremlin policy is driven by some contradictory impulses which have little to do with Syria and a lot to do with Vladimir Putin's fear of revolution at home, not to mention Russia's aspiration to be seen as the global equal of the US.

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, the veteran diplomat Vitaly Churkin, put it bluntly when he advised the Arab states not to forget that Russia is "an extremely serious geopolitical reality" which they would need some day. "Don't spit into a well," he warned the Arabs, "you may need it for a drink of water".

Independent Russian commentators have cast doubt on Moscow's status as a "serious geopolitical reality". While it had global reach in the past, the Kremlin is retreating to become a regional power, and that region barely extends to Syria. Alexander Golts, a military commentator, noted that Syria had given Russia its only military base on the Mediterranean, in Tartus, but added: "It remains a mystery to me what military value the base offers the Kremlin."

Mr Putin, the prime minister who is to be re-elected president next month, alluded to the second impulse during a conversation with religious leaders in Moscow. He blamed western interference for the uprisings in Libya and Syria, and suggested there was a threat that the US would try to do the same in Russia. There was a growing "cult of violence" in international affairs, he said, and "we must not allow anything like this in our country."

Mr Putin has long expressed concern that western powers were trying to foment revolution in Russia on the lines of the "Orange revolution" in Ukraine in 2004 and 2005. At the same time, he fears the rise of militant Sunni Islam, in his view an imported banner under which Chechen separatists have mobilised, threatening the stability of Russia's southern border.

His fears of foreign-inspired revolution on the streets of Moscow are ludicrous. Mr Putin is indeed facing mass protests as he tries to engineer his return to the presidency, but it is not US dollars fomenting revolt. Rather, it is because a vocal part of Russian society wants a leadership which has more on its mind than mere preservation of its inner elite.

The net effect of Russian diplomacy is to place a huge burden on the Kremlin to come up with a solution. Without this, its support for Mr Al Assad will look like empty posturing.

The West is hardly innocent of confusion. The goal is to avoid getting entangled in another Middle East conflict while hoping that the uprising will somehow smash the 30-year alliance between Iran and the ruling Al Assad family.

Into this policy vacuum has stepped the former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, to try to put some Israeli sinew into these hopes. Breaking the alliance with Syria, he writes in The New York Times, would be a "strategic debacle" for Iran such that it might have to give up its nuclear ambitions and there would be no need for war against Iran. In an election year, US President Barack Obama would like nothing more than to inflict a blow on Iran without risking a single US casualty.

How is this grand scheme going to work? As a former spy, Mr Halevy does not indicate how he will remove President Al Assad and strengthen the Free Syrian Army, which does not have one square metre of liberated soil to train on. Perhaps the plan will be as successful as Israel's 1982 plot to turn Lebanon into an ally through invasion and the training of the Christian Phalangists. The net result, of course, was the creation of Hizbollah as a dominant political force.

Between the lines of Mr Halevy's proposal is a simple offer: a more aggressive US stance on removing the Al Assad dynasty would remove the chance of Israel complicating Mr Obama's re-election chances. In this case the dreaded "October surprise" would be Israel bombing Iran and starting a new war in the region.

The Israeli logic is surely no surprise to the Iranians. They can see that Mr Al Assad has lost credibility and will have to be replaced. Their game plan is to help the Syrian army crush the opposition by military force, using the window offered by the Russian veto, and then affect a leadership change which would preserve the alliance.

The stakes are very high for the Iranians. With a friendly regime in Damascus, Iran's writ reaches through Iraq (recently vacated by the US), Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean and the borders of Israel. Without Syria, Iran is a diminished power.

With the United Nations Security council paralysed by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, the Arab League can do little. It cannot send in troops to get involved in an Arab civil conflict.

From this perspective, of all the outside powers Iran has the clearest goals. But it is impossible to predict what will happen.

Perhaps Syria's fate is to be political corpse picked over by all the regional powers. Perhaps Russia's game plan is to show the Americans that in Syria they cannot just be sidelined as they were in Libya. If that is the case, it will be a very bloody lesson. In the end, if Iran succeeds in preserving its alliance with Syria, with or without the Al Assad family, it will have the Kremlin to thank.



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