Christian Caryl

The Devil They Know

Why the West shouldn't expect Russia's policy on Syria to change anytime soon.


On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the Russians of sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria," Clinton said. "They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry; everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue."

Her pugnacious remarks made for a striking contrast. Just last week, according to the New York Times, she was dispatching an emissary to Moscow to sound out the Russians on how to achieve "a common vision on a post-Assad political transition in Syria." The article noted that the Russian government had recently "suggested it is not opposed to new leadership in Syria, its most important ally in the Middle East."

Judging by Clinton’s outburst, the envoy’s trip doesn’t seem to have gone well. Maybe it had something to do with the remarks made over the weekend by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He confirmed that a Russian freighter had docked at the Syrian port of Tartus late last month. And yes, he said, there were weapons onboard the ship — but nothing that Assad could deploy against his own people. The equipment delivered was strictly for the defense of Syrian air space, and "could be used only if Syria is subjected to military intervention from abroad." (He has since repeated the point in response to Clinton’s allegations.)

None of this, obviously, bodes well for the prospect of Russian-American cooperation on Syria. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Judging by the evidence, Moscow’s position has remained remarkably consistent throughout the Syrian uprising — and there’s little sign that it will change any time soon.

The reasons for this are fairly clear. First and foremost, Assad’s regime is pretty much the Kremlin’s last solid ally in the Arab world. The friendship between Moscow and Damascus goes back decades. (The photo above shows an Assad supporter greeting Lavrov during a visit to Damascus in Februrary.) The present Syrian president’s father, Hafez el-Assad, was one of the Soviet Union’s most reliable regional friends. And Tartus, which provides access and supplies for Russian ships in the Mediterranean, counts as Moscow’s only military base outside the old USSR. Losing it would strike a blow to Russia’s desire to be taken seriously as a world power. "Without Syria as an ally, they really have no presence in the Middle East," says Mark Katz, a Russia watcher at George Mason University.

Second, the Russians are obsessed with the spread of Islamist regimes and ideology — especially given the continuing challenge from Islamic insurgents in the republics of the North Caucasus. Russian press reports about the Syrian opposition reflexively portray it as dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and depict the Arab Spring as a boon to fundamentalists throughout the region. "Assad may not be so great, but the alternative to Assad is bound to be worse," is a sentiment that regularly punctuates Russian coverage. "They have a genuine question: ‘If Assad goes, what comes next?’" says Steven Pifer, an ex-U.S. diplomat at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I’m not sure anyone can answer that question."

Finally, Moscow is reluctant to give a pass to the Americans on anything these days. Having recently returned to the presidency, Vladimir Putin has been showing little inclination to cultivate the relationship. Soon after taking office, he snubbed the Obama administration by skipping a key summit meeting, and Russian officialdom has been notably brusque in its treatment of the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul — despite his identification with the "reset" policy, aimed at cooperation with the Russians.

One fruit of the reset often cited by its defenders was the Russians’ willingness to abstain from the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing intervention against Libya last year — a move that prompted one of the very few open disagreements between Putin and then-President Vladimir Medvedev, who argued in favor of compromise with the Americans. But Medvedev’s position has since been soundly discredited in Moscow. The Russians insist that they thought they were allowing a no-fly zone rather than a mandate to topple Qaddafi — with the clear implication that no one in the Kremlin will be making that mistake again anytime soon.

In fact, the real question observers should be asking is why the Russians have been so rigid, failing to leave themselves much in the way of options in case Assad fails to hang on. Case in point: Even though the Russians and the Chinese are often lumped together as opponents of intervention, Beijing has actually made a much better show of it.

Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi sat down at a conference table in Beijing for an official meeting with the then-head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun. Yang expressed China’s support for the United Nations peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, and explained that his government favored "any solution that is in the fundamental interests of Syrian people and is acceptable for all." The SNC leader replied that his organization also supported the Annan Plan — and then, for good measure, thanked the Chinese for their "humanitarian assistance" to the Syrian people.

The Russians don’t seem to be taking comparable care with their image. To be sure, Moscow’s diplomats have made a few encouraging noises of late, stressing that they don’t support Assad as an individual so much as the principle of the sovereignty of his state. Russia resists intervention, Lavrov recently said, "not because we are protecting Assad and his regime, but because we know that Syria is a complicated multi-confessional state, and because we know that some of those calling for military intervention want to ruin this and turn Syria into a battleground for domination in the Islamic world."

And it’s probably true that it’s ultimately less Assad’s personal fate that concerns Putin and company than Russia’s place in the larger scheme of things. "The West does not see Moscow as an equal partner," writes Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Middle East Studies Institute in Moscow, in a recent commentary. "So, if some group needs Russian support in Syria and, especially, in Iran, it will come at a price. The price is measured not in finances but in the oft-proclaimed Russian geopolitical interests that have been ignored by the international community throughout the post-Soviet period."

Such are the considerations behind Moscow’s latest offer to host an international conference to discuss a Syrian settlement, thereby implicitly acknowledging that Assad’s future is open to discussion. This show of flexibility is, once again, somewhat less flexible than it seems at first glance. The Kremlin insists that such a conference can only work if Iran is a part of it, a demand that makes it highly unlikely that Western capitals will ever sign on — a fact that the Russians undoubtedly understood when they made the offer. (Clinton also rejected Iran’s participation in Tuesday’s remarks.) But by trying to pose as an honest broker, the Russians can at least once again show the world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, a player on the global stage.

So does all that justify backing a losing horse? The answer is that Assad’s eventual fall doesn’t look quite so inevitable from the Russians’ perspective. As they see it, the Syrian resistance is fragmented and weak, and the strategic initiative remains on the side of Assad’s forces, who retain undisputed control of the country’s major urban centers. This is one point where they might not be entirely wrong.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is fully aware that Western politicians — including Barack Obama — have little appetite for direct military involvement in the Syrian maelstrom. Moscow, in short, is betting that Assad can beat the odds. Until that changes in some fundamental way, Moscow’s policies probably won’t either.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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