“Why does Russia support dictators?” a French correspondent who has come to Moscow to find out about Russia’s stance on Syria asked me. “Why does the West support the Islamists and terrorists who came to power after the revolutions?” I shot back. After exchanging these stereotypical “pleasantries,” we got down to some honest discussions.
Russia has unexpectedly become a key player in the Syrian drama. It is preventing the UN Security Council from legitimizing the policy of exerting pressure on Bashar al-Assad advocated by Arab countries and their Western supporters. However, the Syrian dilemma is closely connected with the problem of Iran, which the international community has been trying to resolve for 15 years.
The situation in Syria was discussed at the third meeting of the Middle East Section of the Valdai International Discussion Club entitled Transformation in the Arab World and Interests of Russia. It was held in Sochi on the Black Sea coast at the end of last week. Given the impressive list of experts from the region and around the world who attended the meeting in Sochi, it can be viewed as a good illustration of the general attitude to the Syrian issue.
On first impressions, no one understands Russia’s stance. Most of the Arab participants appealed to Moscow, some more emotionally than others, to withdraw its support from Damascus. They argued that the current regime will definitely fall, it is only a matter of time, and therefore Russia does not stand to gain any political, or commercial, benefits from its protection of the Assad regime. It should therefore “take the right side of history” and stop interfering with the will of the people, which in the eyes of most of the Arab speakers amounts to a rejection of the Assad regime.
Critics of Moscow’s stance offer various reasons for it, ranging from commercial (primarily defense) interests to “spiritual kinship” with dictators. They do not accept Russia’s arguments that it is not the Syrian regime they are supporting but the principles of how such conflicts should be settled, and that a quick overthrow of al-Assad would only add to the chaos.
No doubt a desire to hold on to lucrative contracts and a friendship that dates back to the Soviet period have played their role, but right now Moscow is acting on principle, that principle being that one must not support either side in a civil war or exploit a universal legitimatizing body like the UN Security Council to suit the goals of particular countries or regional groups. Besides, Russia is fighting for its own prestige – it wants other countries to respect its opinion, and not just ask it for the sake of appearances.
Nevertheless, nearly all the Arab countries (with the possible exception of Iraq) and the West are criticizing Moscow, yet it has refused to make any concessions either at the Security Council or outside it. As an example, Russia has refused to join the Friends of Syria Group. Most commentators believe that by so doing Russia is jeopardizing its long-term position in the Arab world.
Is Russia’s policy really that short-sighted? Its prospects for having influence in the Middle East look vague indeed. The reserve of confidence built up during the Soviet period has been depleted, and it is unclear whether today’s Russia is ready to step out onto the global stage. But the rest of Russia’s policy is not so unreasonable.
Moscow has made it clear that bypassing legitimate measures is not an option, this just results in random actions like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which everyone now recognizes was a mistake. So others can either respect Russia’s opinion by taking a neutral stance on the conflict in Syria, or act at their own risk and peril, something which it appears no one is willing to do.
The focus is, of course, on Russia’s global status, but Moscow also wants to keep the door open for an alternative solution to be found. The only other option is a military and political tunnel which will inevitably lead to a war with international ramifications.
It is worth noting that, unlike the Arab countries, the West has changed its position slightly, something which the debates in Sochi confirmed. The general opinion is that the events cannot be reversed, but they have clearly taken a wrong turn and it would be dangerous to become actively involved in them. It is becoming clear that the potential consequences of the overthrow of al-Assad are dramatic. Given the vague composition and unclear intentions of the opposition, obvious interference from outside, and the interests of the Sunni monarchies from all directions, the outcome could spell disaster for the Alawi, Christian, Kurdish and possibly Coptic minorities. The possibility of a bloody internecine conflict is frighteningly real.
The Russian experts in Sochi said that the current mood in Syria is creating the ideal conditions for a large-scale and lengthy civil war. Up to 20% of Syrians actively support al-Assad, approximately 40% are against any change, believing that the current regime is better than the alternatives, about 10% are radically opposed to the government, and about 30% are in favor of some form of change. This is a classic split
No one wants to see a repeat of Libya in Syria, or of the war in Iraq, which went against a decision by the UN Security Council. Any decision on Syria will require the support and shared responsibility of Moscow to make it legitimate. One suggestion is for Russia to guarantee the interests and security of the minorities in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, who fear reprisals by the Sunni majority if Assad’s government (a privileged minority) were to fall. This would be a way for Moscow to take a morally correct and a politically promising stance.
Summing up the impressions of the discussions in Sochi, the conclusion seems to be that despite the sharp criticism, Moscow acted correctly in refusing to vote for the Syrian resolution. Its decision has raised the stakes, as now acting without Russia would be risky and ignoring its opinion impossible, despite the scathing criticism of its stance. However, it now needs to readjust its position, because refusing to do anything will achieve nothing apart from escalating the civil war. All participants in the Sochi meeting said that Russia could play a key role in persuading Damascus to accept a transitional compromise.
However, the extent of Moscow’s influence on al-Assad should not be overestimated, particularly as the competence of the Syrian leadership is in question. But even the Arab representatives, who have reacted very negatively to Russia’s policy, admit that the room for maneuver has decreased dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union disturbed the balance of power in the Middle East. If Russia acted as the balancing force, its prestige would soar. However, this would entail not only a firm stance but also flexibility, a creative attitude and political will, which Russia does not seem to have yet.