Russia and Syria
Feeling somewhat isolated on Syria, the Russians toy with a Yemeni solution
Jun 9th 2012 | MOSCOW | from the print edition
NO FOREIGN leader can talk to Vladimir Putin these days without discussing Syria. And the Russian president has met many this month, as he hopped from Paris to Berlin to a Russia-European Union summit in St Petersburg and on to China. European leaders in particular pressed him to take a firmer line against Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. But Mr Putin stuck firmly to his position: both sides are to blame, and any push from the West to unseat Mr Assad risks igniting civil war.
That Russia has been able to place itself at the centre of Syria’s grim drama shows, in one sense, the success of its strategy. The Russians have some special interests in the country—more than 75% of Syria’s weapons are bought from Russia, for example, and it has a naval facility at Tartus. But its policy ever since the uprising began over a year ago has never really been about Syria, but about showing that Russia is an influential and pivotal world power whose voice must be heeded.
The Russians believe that their stubbornness has changed how the world responds to Syria—and that alone is a victory. The peace initiative of Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, is really a product of Russia’s making. In recent months “the world was beating a path to Moscow’s door,” says Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch, who met Russian officials this spring. “Their chests were all pumped up.”
The West has looked at Syria through the lens of democracy and human rights, towards which the Russian government is instinctively sceptical, if not actively hostile. The Russians prefer to see it as a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran as much as a home-grown uprising. And they think both that the Assad regime has shown more restraint than it is given credit for and that the opposition has been less peaceable than is often reported.
This is not purely cynical. The foreign-policy establishment in Moscow genuinely believes that Syria is messier and more prone to unpredictable escalation than Western leaders understand, and that any outside intervention would court disaster. But as the horrors in Syria accumulate (seearticle), that line is getting hard to defend. It is harder still after massacres by loyalist forces—although the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed that the Houla killings bore the marks of “both sides.”
Memories of Libya are also fresh. In March 2011 Russia abstained, rather than veto a UN Security Council resolution allowing the NATO air campaign that ultimately pushed Muammar Qaddafi from power. The Russians claim they were misled (or betrayed) into signing up to regime change—an idea that is anathema to them. Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister but then president, has been vilified by Putin supporters for tolerating it. To Mr Putin the conclusion from Libya is clear: this was a big political error, not to be repeated over Syria or anywhere else.
Yet the longer the Russians stand behind Mr Assad, the more their gloomy predictions come true. Syria is moving towards a civil war. And that is not good for Russia. Either chaos in Syria or Western intervention without Mr Putin’s approval would see the Russians pushed to the sidelines. With the Annan plan in tatters, the Russians will “run out of arguments” for the status quo, suggests Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs.
For precisely this reason, Russia now seems more open, however tentatively, to a Yemeni solution, in which Mr Assad would leave power under a managed transition that kept some aspects of the Syrian state intact. Yet Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre argues that giving Mr Assad an ultimatum and then helping to oversee a political transition would still require Russia to “change its modus operandi” and take some “proactive steps for which it may not be ready.” With Syria disintegrating by the day, it may soon find that it has no other choice.
from the print edition | Europe