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Why is Russia so resolute on Syria?

Fyodor Lukyanov's column

Published time: February 03, 2012 08:41

­Syria is now issue number one in global affairs, and the question which almost all foreign diplomats and journalists are asking their Russian colleagues is why Moscow stubbornly persists in protecting Bashar al-Assad. Isn’t the Russian leadership aware that his regime is doomed to fall?

I don’t believe that Moscow is that short-sighted. The Alawi minority that has ruled the Sunni majority for so long was bound to be challenged from below sooner or later. The Arab Spring in neighboring countries has become a catalyst of the discontent that was brewing in Syrian society. The system that was built over 40 years of rule by the al-Assad clan cannot remain intact indefinitely.

But being aware of that is not the same as endorsing the geopolitical game which is being played out in the region. Its Saudi-led Sunni monarchies have seen Syrian developments as a chance to take revenge for events in the first half of the 2000s. Back then, the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to a sharp rise in the influence of Iran and the Shiites. Damascus is a major ally of Tehran and the removal of the Shiite-allied Alawi regime would mean a major victory for Riyadh and its partners.

The Russian establishment and public opinion don’t buy the picture of a peaceful pro-democracy movement suppressed by dictatorship. Well-trained and heavily-armed rebel groups have support from the outside, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. What is going on in Syria is almost a full-scale civil war, where cruelty is being meted out by all sides. So Russians wonder why the international community should throw its weight behind one side only. And even more, why Russia should help those rushing to intervene to legitimize that intervention through the UNSC.

Russia has drawn lessons from events in Libya last year after Moscow refrained from using its veto in the UNSC, paving the way for “humanitarian intervention” by NATO. The “no-fly zone” mandate was almost immediately shifted into a regime change operation led by France and Britain. Russia felt its cooperation had been abused. It is because of this that Moscow now refuses to cooperate on Syria.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently summed up Russia’s view on Syria. “If they decide to use force at any cost… we will hardly be able to prevent this. But let this happen on their own initiative and let it rest on their conscience. They will not receive any authorization from the UN Security Council.” In other words, Russia is not all-powerful and is not going to die for the interests of others, but neither will it facilitate the unleashing of war.

Is a compromise in sight? Russia could back a tougher resolution on Syria if the text is clear and precise, and not vague as was the case with the Libyan resolution a year ago. Russia opposes any call for Bashar al-Assad to resign because ultimatums of this kind will mean entering onto a path whose final destination is invasion. This is because the UNSC will not allow its demand to be ignored, while it is unlikely that Assad will be in any hurry to fulfill it. 

The ideal way to get Russian approval would be an unequivocal clause stating that no military option is acceptable. Whether the West and the Arab League are ready to go that far is very doubtful, and it seems that the military option remains on the table for those involved. But then they will need to act without a UNSC mandate.

It would be naïve to deny that the Russian position has other, less noble, motivations, i.e. arms sales to Syria which would likely be terminated after fall of Assad. But to limit Russian’s motives to that mercantilist argument would be wrong.

­Fyodor Lukyanov, for RT

­The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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