x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Russia surrenders its options in Syria by arming Assad

Russia thought it was in a strong diplomatic position in the Syrian crisis, but it is becoming clear that the opposite is true.

The international meeting on the Syrian conflict held last weekend in Geneva was, as anticipated, a failure. The five permanent members of the Security Council and four Middle East states were represented, called together by Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy on Syria. A major point of discord was Russia's continued refusal to call for the departure of President Bashar Al Assad.

Moscow's motivations have been explained time and again. The Russians' attitude toward Syria is not defined primarily by their interests in the Middle East, we are frequently told, or even by a desire to ensure Mr Al Assad's continuation in office - although Moscow is keen to preserve influence in Syria, the last of its Cold War-era allies, where it has a naval base. Rather, Moscow's main impetus is to resist changes in the global order that may marginalise it.

As Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre recently observed: "It is about who decides: who decides whether to use military force? Who decides the actors for use of that force? And who decides under what rules, conditions and oversight military force is to be used?"

Be that as it may, in Geneva the Russians may have assured their future political marginalisation in the Arab world. After watering down the agreement on a proposed national-unity government, Moscow is again refusing to attend a "Friends of Syria" meeting, this one in Paris this week.

Moscow's advantage had always been that it alone had the latitude to mediate a solution with the Syrian leadership, because it could weaken Mr Al Assad by withdrawing its backing for his regime. Yet the Russians had also won the president's trust by rejecting regime change, reflecting a realist respect for state sovereignty.

However, Russian behaviour may negate these advantages. Let's start with Moscow's power of mediation. The truth is that Russia is now Mr Al Assad's hostage rather than the contrary. Time and again, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has hinted that the Syrian leader was expendable. But in fact, Russian interests today are so tied to his remaining in office during this phase that Mr Al Assad must be bolstered at all costs.

That is why the Russians are arming the Syrian regime. Moscow is no longer an arbitrator; it has become an active participant in Syria's repression. Yes, Mr Al Assad is expendable in that Russia is not committed to his indefinite political survival. However, that's a meaningless concession when translated into the language of realpolitik, which Russia understands well. Mr Al Assad's exit today would mean the collapse of Moscow's Syria strategy.

Mr Al Assad has managed two significant achievements. He has effectively undermined Russia's role as intermediary, making it much more difficult for Moscow to sacrifice him at the bargaining table. And in so doing, Mr Al Assad has tied the administration of President Vladimir Putin much more tightly to his own political fate, earning vital military assistance at a crucial time.

By providing Mr Al Assad with the military capability to resist his foes, Russia has made the negotiated solution it claims to favour far less feasible. The Syrian leader has no intention of surrendering power, and Russian weaponry allows him to ignore outside entreaties to leave office. But if Mr Al Assad intends to fight on, and Moscow is handing him the means to do so, then Russia's purported added value in being able to peacefully resolve the Syrian conflict is an illusion.

This contradiction in the Russian position leads to another. Far from upholding the principle of state sovereignty, Russia, thanks to its intransigence despite the butchery carried out by its Syrian comrades, has left the international community with no outlet except to demand that Mr Al Assad step down. Moscow has not succeeded in delivering a transition plan of its own, has angered many Arab governments in the process and cannot push Mr Al Assad beyond certain limits, because it would then risk losing its sway over him.

Worst of all, Russia has missed an opportunity to work with Europe and the United States, which earlier this year implicitly accepted that Mr Al Assad could be part of a peace plan, and even that Moscow could take the lead in implementing such a plan. Instead, Moscow's mistrust of Washington has meant that the Russians find themselves on the periphery, defending a regime that cannot possibly weather the tempest.

The Russians have not only misread diplomatic dynamics, they have been blind to the vitality of popular revolts. Apparently, Russian officials are immune to outrage. Don't expect better from Mr Putin, but what decision-makers in Moscow have missed is that their preference for an engineered, measured changeover will never fly with Syria's opposition because Mr Al Assad has slaughtered tens of thousands of people. And yet it was obvious from the start that Mr Al Assad's barbarity would keep the Syrian revolt alive.

There will be payback. The Russians may believe there is method to their contradictions, but those in the Syrian opposition see none. All they know is that Russian weapons are killing more innocents every day. That's why once Mr Al Assad is cast out, Russia may follow.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling