Last week there was some hope that Russia might be coming on board with the need to do something about the steadily increasing bloodshed in Syria. The Russian foreign ministry offered to host peace talks in Moscow, and although the Syrian opposition rejected the idea, negotiations continued at the united nations in the hope of getting a security council resolution that Russia would support to put pressure on president Bashar al-Assad.
But it came to nought at the weekend, with Russia and China vetoing the already-watered-down draft resolution. Western reaction was unusually sharp — Hillary Clinton referred to it as “a travesty” — but Russia blamed the West for failing “to undertake an extra effort and come to a consensus”.
The good news is that an impressive degree of consensus has already been reached; the non-permanent members of the security council unanimously supported the resolution. The price of that was the explicit abandonment of any suggestion of military action, but neither the West nor the Syrian opposition was enthusiastic about that in the first place. Even Russia did not dispute that some sort of UN action was appropriate.
But the bad news, of course, is that in the end nothing has been done, the killing goes on in Syria, Assad will see himself as being given a green light, and relations between Russia and the West have been decidedly soured. According to the BBC, the UN vote “coincided with one of the bloodiest days since protests began last March”; the situation in Homs, the opposition’s strongest big city, seems particularly dire.
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Many analysts continue to insist that Assad’s days are numbered — that dissent has progressed beyond a point where the current regime can realistically hope to put the country back together, and that internal and external pressure will eventually reach a point where Assad’s departure cannot be avoided. But that point could still be some time off; even Colonel Gaddafi, with NATO air strikes to contend with, hung on longer than many people expected.
If regime change in Syria is inevitable then it would seem to be in everyone’s interest, and especially that of Syria’s neighbours, for it to happen as quickly and painlessly as possible. Which raises the question of what Russia’s game plan is, and indeed whether it has one.
As Assad’s last major ally except for Iran — the Russian navy has a base on the Syrian coast at Tartus, dating back to Soviet times — there’s no doubt that Russia’s role is critical. But Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, facing a somewhat challenging presidential election next month, is likely to be strongly influenced in his decision making by the demands of domestic politics.
It’s sometimes suggested that Putin’s support (such as it is) reflects a Russian predilection for authoritarianism and nostalgia for Soviet dictatorship, but what seems more important to the average Russian is their country’s status as a world power. The fall of the Soviet Union was widely regretted not because of any love for communism or authoritarian rule, but because of the sharp loss of status. The key to Putin’s policy over the past decade has been his effort to rebuild Russian influence and national pride.
So from Putin’s point of view, whether Assad survives or not, and whether Syrians end up with a democracy or not, are very much secondary considerations. His priorities are probably twofold: to ensure that Russia is seen to be the decisive actor, and that Russia is seen to benefit strategically (or at least not suffer) from the outcome.
And while there might be some reluctance to help with Putin’s re-election effort, there’s no particular reason for the West to have a problem with either of those objectives. Hence the hopes last week, now disappointed, that Russia would be amenable to a deal — and the continuing hope that somewhere down the track Russian pressure, applied at the right moment, could still be decisive in ending the bloodshed.
There’s certainly no sign that Russia has any sort of sentimental attachment to Assad personally. And lest we jump to criticise Putin on that score, a quick look around the Middle East will turn up numerous examples where Western policy has been determined not by sentiment or principle but by n-ked realpolitik and domestic political concerns.
We can hardly expect Russia to behave any differently.