The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on May 10, 2013
What’s The Russian Angle On Syria?

The big news two days ago was the announcement, by Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, of plans to hold a conference on Syria sometime this month. Now, if this conference—assuming it ever happens—can stop the civil war and lead to a relatively smooth landing (“smooth” in this case is a very elastic word) for the post-Assad future, it ought to be something that interests us. Since we are wise to keep American boots far away from Syria, and since the Administration may have blown a chance to engage Turkish force, with NATO and Arab League support, to stop the bloodletting more than a year ago, there are, as the President and others have recently said, no other good options.

But let’s interrogate this proposition a bit more carefully, shall we? First, let’s ask “why now?” Why have the Russians agreed to this now, when they were so reluctant to do so before? After all, this has been a central element of the Administration’s policy, so-called, all along. And my readers will please note that while, at the time, I lambasted the idea of seconding U.S. policy in Syria to the tender mercies of Vladimir Putin, a part of avoiding any kind of pre-election kinetic response, I also granted that in the fullness of time—after the battlefield situation developed further to Assad’s detriment—this sort of ploy might prove useful as part of an endgame. Will it?

The mainstream press has a theory of “why now?” As Anne Gearan and Scott Wilson put it in the Washington Post, it seems that “Russian support for Assad has softened since the emergence of new evidence that is government has probably used chemical weapons on a small scale in the war.” It may well be that the Russians are finally ready to throw Assad to the wolves, but this simply cannot be the reason. The idea that the Russian leadership has been shocked—shocked, I say—morally affronted even, by the use of chemical weapons in Syria has got to rank as one of the most hilarious statements I have ever read in a supposedly serious newspaper. Are Gearan and Wilson kidding?

They adduce, too, that the protraction of the war in Syria is complicating Russian relations with Israel and with the broader Middle East. Not as funny, but just as silly.

And they observe that, “Kerry said that the administration’s decision on whether to arm the Syrian rebels—a move Obama has resisted—could be avoided if there is progress toward a political settlement.” Bingo!—now we’re getting somewhere, except that Gearan and Wilson don’t know where. Could it be that given the President’s tortured body language over his chemical weapons “red line”—reaching a level of equivocation that puts him nearly in the same category as Bill Clinton’s ruminations over what “is” is—the Russians are helping him to “just say no”? Do ya think?

So maybe the Russians mean by all this no more than the fabrication of a substitute for the ill-fated Kofi Annan mission, which had the effect of buying time for Assad to murder his way out of his problem. The fact that Putin reportedly kept Kerry waiting for three hours while he talked to his cabinet does not bode so well, if you know how to read Putin’s body language. If that is the case, there will be no conference, or in any event no real business to conduct at it if it ever does convene.

But perhaps this is too cynical a reading. Perhaps the Russians are finally ready to boot Assad, and hope that by participating in the facilitation of a transition they can hold on to their base at Tartus and retain some influence in the area, including selling weapons to an assortment of patrons. Maybe they’ve concluded that half a loaf is better than none, which is what they’d likely end up with if the rebels win. If so, if the Russians are serious about a conference, what sort of pre-conference deal might that portend (and yes, please be serious, of course there would have to be one)?

The Russians know that the United States, Israel and the West generally would benefit from Assad’s fall because Syria is Iran’s only ally, and the main means by which the Iranian regimes exerts influence in the Levant. Hizballah cannot readily maintain its strength without the Syrian factor. So if the Russians prove willing to help us dump Assad and harm Iranian interests, it’s a sure thing they’re going to demand something considerable in return. Not only would they not be Russians otherwise, they would not be competent diplomats of any description otherwise. So what would they ask?

Of course, I don’t know. But whatever they might suggest, I could imagine a situation in which the Russians double-down diplomatically by suggesting themselves (not exactly for the first time) as intermediaries in defusing the Iranian diplomatic bomb as a way to ward off the mullahs’ attainment of a real one. The Russians don’t hunger for an Iranian regime with nukes, though the prospect of one complicates our lives a lot more than it does theirs—so Moscow has been happy to stand aside and play risk-free irritant. And they see the President’s body language here, too: Obama will do practically anything, they suppose, to avoid having to take military action against Iran. That could put Putin potentially in a situation where Russia can play diplomatic middleman, able to extract quid pro quo “commissions” from all sides—American and Iranian, European, Arab and possibly Israeli, too. What a peachy prospect, huh?

In any event, time will tell if the Russians are preparing a stall tactic, or if they really mean to deal. Either way, those who think that the heavens have just parted, and that rays of warm light are about to bathe poor benighted Syria in soft waves of diplomatic altruism, are in for a disappointment. But hey, maybe they can get a job writing news copy for the Washington Post.

  • WigWag

    As usual Adam’s ruminations about why the Russians would finally agree to participate in an international conference on Syria are interesting but I think the more interesting question is why the Obama Administration is so desperate to hold an international conference in the first place. Whether you favor a foreign policy based on values or on interests or on a little bit of both, how is the United States better off by inviting the Russians to, in effect, help forge American policy?

    Its one thing to lead from behind by following the British or the French, it is quite another to allow the Russians to lead you on a leash.

    During the War in Iraq, opponents of the war ridiculed Tony Blair as George Bush’s poodle. It seems that President Obama is determined to do everything possible to distinguish himself from George Bush; it looks like he’s decided that the best way to do that is to become Vladimir Putin’s poodle. It’s too bad that the rest of us are destined to pick up the puppy s**t.

  • K2K

    “…the protraction of the war in Syria is complicating Russian relations with Israel and with the broader Middle East….”

    is neither silly nor funny, at least as regards Israel, where the largest Russian-speaking population (and their brains)outside of Russia now lives. And, Gazprom wants a piece of all that offshore natural gas.

    If Assad ditched Hezbollah, THAT would be the game changer.

    Russia wants to crush Sunni Islamists wherever they are, because of Chechnya and Dagestan.

    It’s not about the chemical weapons, but Russia’s position in the eastern Med, and anything to smackdown Turkey. History never really ends for some.