As the crisis in Syria collapses into what looks like full-blown civil war, foreign ministers of key United Nations Security Council and Arab League powers will meet in Geneva tomorrow for a last-ditch effort to find a political solution. The main obstacle to common agreement on the new plan by UN envoy Kofi Annan is likely to be the ongoing dispute between Russia (and China) and the West over the need to remove strongman Bashar al-Assad from the picture.
Moscow has vetoed two resolutions that would have provided a means of easing Mr. Assad out, and seems set to dig in its heels against any language in the new plan that calls for Assad’s removal. Russia’s position is a complicated mix of principle, self-interest, mistrust of Western motives, and sincerely differing perceptions of the situation. A brief guide to the Russian mind:
Russians take sovereignty seriously, sort of
The central principle the Russians cite for opposing any outside intervention in Syria is sovereignty, the supreme authority of each state to determine affairs on its own territory.
Along with the sometimes contradictory right of each nation to self-determination, sovereignty is the core principle of international law, enshrined in the UN Charter. The Russians argue that, for all its flaws, the inviolability of each state’s control over its own affairs is the only thing standing in the way of neo-imperialist domination by strong states over weaker ones.
In Syria, they argue, Western nations are pursuing their own geopolitical interests under the guise of a humanitarian “right to protect” which supposedly trumps the country’s sovereignty. Moscow sees it as its duty to block such attempts.
But Russia‘s concern for sovereignty doesn’t extend to its own dealings with post-Soviet neighbors. In 2008, after defeating Georgia in a brief war, Moscow recognized the independence of two Georgian breakaway territories, Abkhazia and S. Ossetia, thus effectively dismembering a sovereign state against its will.
Some experts say the Kremlin‘s basic fear is that any precedent that licenses outside force to change the regime in a strife-ridden country like Syria might one day be used as an argument in favor of foreign intervention in Russia. With tens of thousands of anti-Kremlin protesters rallying in Moscow streets in recent months, that may not be just an academic concern.
Russia has strong incentive to support the status quo in Syria
Russia has strong material and political incentives to support the status quo in Syria. Assad’s father formed a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union in 1971, and since then Syria has been Russia’s steady – and now sole – client state amid the shifting alliances of the Middle East.
Russia is Syria’s principal armorer, with an estimated $5 billion in outstanding weapons contracts, mainly advanced anti-aircraft systems, coastal defense missiles, and jet trainers. Russia also has the use of a naval re-supply center in the Syrian port of Tartous, which is the only Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union. Experts say there is about $15 billion in more traditional economic contracts, including construction and energy projects by big Russian firms. About 100,000 Russians reside in Syria, which will present the Kremlin with a logistical nightmare if they have to be evacuated.
Another key Russian concern, which has received very little attention, is the intensely conservative attitude of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which sees itself as the protector of Syria’s beleaguered Christian minority, comprising about 10 percent of the population. “The Orthodox Church presses very heavily on the Kremlin to defend Syria’s Christians, whose safety has been assured by the Assad regime all these years,” says Vladimir Yevseyev, an expert at the official Institute of International Relations and World Economy in Moscow. “Russia’s interests at stake here are more geopolitical than they are economic.”
Russia has become deeply mistrustful of Western motives and competence
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has become deeply mistrustful of Western motives and competence.
Though Russia cooperated with NATO interventions in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, Moscow began to sour on Western wars of humanitarian intervention after it helped to settle the 1999 Kosovo war, only to see the West impose its own chosen settlement on Russia’s ally Serbia, including independence for Kosovo. Russian experts say US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely failed to produce positive results because Washington often seems to have no vision to offer beyond military-driven regime change.
Last year Russia was persuaded to abstain on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force to protect civilians in Libya. The Russians now claim they were tricked by the humanitarian language, and that once Western states got its license to use military force the whole effort morphed into a rebel drive for regime change backed by NATO air power. The most common refrain from Russian experts and officials today is that they will not allow themselves to be duped again by similar cries for humanitarian intervention in Syria.
They also point out – with some reason – that Western leaders can be quite selective and hypocritical in choosing their targets of concern.
“There is minority Sunni rule with a dictatorial king in Bahrain, where they recently crushed a popular pro-democracy movement in a cruel and bloody fashion, yet the US still supports and sells arms to this regime. Why?” says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. “Can it be because Bahrain is a geopolitical ally of the US and the US Navy maintains a major base there? Syria is a friend of Russia and an ally of Iran, and that’s the only reason it’s in the West’s gun sights right now. It’s pure double standards, so why should we take it seriously?”
Russia sees the Syria situation differently from the West
Russia sees the unfolding nightmare in Syria differently from the way the West perceives it.
Experts in Moscow argue that their Western colleagues have a completely misplaced faith that removing dictators will cure all ills, and they fail to notice the deep, pre-modern social complexities, religious divisions and tribal loyalties that often drive so-called democratic revolutions. “What we see [in Syria] is an extraordinarily difficult situation that threatens to explode into a massive bloodbath. Nobody likes Assad, but if you just remove him the entire state will collapse, with awful consequences,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected expert who has been a frequent adviser to Putin.
Russia, which has a restive Muslim minority in its own volatile northern Caucasus, deeply fears the rise of political Islamism and sees it as a direct threat to its own national survival. “For the West, getting rid of Assad seems to be an end in itself. But if Assad is driven out, only chaos will follow,” says Vladimir Yevseyev, with the official Institute of International Relations and World Economy in Moscow. “Destabilization in Syria will open the gates for radical Islamists, and spread mayhem across the region.”
Worries about possible effects of any potential Israeli or US-sponsored attack against Iran‘s alleged nuclear weapons program already has a jittery Kremlin organizing special Caucasus-wide war games this summer. The galloping crisis in Syria is only likely to strengthen Russian resolve to oppose Western-backed wars.
Russia thinks Assad can still win
Russia thinks Assad can still win.
Moscow‘s view of Assad is not based on affection or a sense of solidarity among autocratic states, Russian experts insist, but rather a solid appraisal of his regime’s strengths.
Among those, they say, are the allegiance of the Christian, Alawite, and Sunni middle class, who make up about 30 percent of the population, plus the tough and proven loyalty of Syria‘s military and security forces.
“Maybe Putin is mistaken, but he clearly believes Assad has a lot of resiliency, plenty of resources, and that he can win this war,” says Georgy Mirsky, a leading expert at the official Institute of International Relations and World Economy in Moscow. “Why would Putin drop Assad now? If he agrees to this new UN plan that would exclude Assad from power in Syria, it will look like Putin has capitulated to US pressure. He doesn’t need that kind of political trouble at home right now. Any compromise that involves removing Assad in future will have to provide a face-saving formula for Putin.”
In practice, Russia seems only likely to abandon Assad once it’s clear there are no other options. During the Libya intervention last year, Moscow stuck by Muammar Qaddafi‘s faltering regime until practically the last moment. Only once the outcome was obvious, in September, did Russia swiftly change gears and extend recognition to the Libyan rebel alliance that overthrew Mr. Qaddafi.
Source: YAHOO NEWS.
Christian Science Monitor