It seems that escalations in the Russian position on the Syrian crisis will force all [parties concerned with bringing an end to the crisis] to reassess their options - especially [the possibility] of toppling the regime. An analysis of the [Russian] position must not be limited to its adamant refusal of international military intervention in Syria by the UN Security Council or another party. [Russia’s shift in stance may] also affect discussions of the overthrow of [Bashar] al-Assad through internal measures, as well as [considerations] relating to the regional and international support for the defections taking place within the ranks of the Syrian army. [Another option that needs to be reconsidered] is the transformation of the Syrian opposition from a peaceful civil protest movement into an armed resistance.
There are many factors to consider when evaluating this Russian stance. Some of them are related to internal [Russian politics], and are linked to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to recapture the presidency, in elections set to take place next March against the backdrop of growing and intense popular rejection of the ruling party and its leaders. Putin is now keener than ever to prove that he is worthy of leading a strong Russia - not a weak secondary player in the shadow of American hegemony. To this end, he will focus on taking strong and tough positions intended to protect Russia’s vital interests, especially in the Middle East. Other, more important factors to consider have to do with Russia’s adoption of a new grand strategy. [This new strategy] is built on [Russia’s] analysis of the changes taking place throughout the world, as well as the reshuffling of the great powers’ roles and Russia’s standing among these powers. In particular, [Russia acknowledges] the ascent of China and India at the expense of America and Europe. This has encouraged Russia to assert itself as a world power capable of competing with and strengthening its ties to China and India in order to stand up to Western powers in America and Europe. [These strengthened alliances may] also help it deal with the ever intensifying and varied developments in the Middle East. These political and security developments are taking place across many countries as a result of the Arab Spring.
Russia realizes that it may have to pay a higher price than other world powers as a result of these developments because, with the exception of Tunisia and Egypt, they have taken place in countries allied with, or at least friendly to Russia - notably Libya and Syria. It also sees danger looming in Iran. Russia has absorbed a lesson from the losses incurred by the collapse of Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. It has also understood that the international resolution issued by the Security Council permitting NATO’s military intervention in Libya against Qaddafi’s regime, under the guise of providing air cover, would not have been passed were it not for the lax Russian position on this resolution. Russia will therefore no longer be willing to accept new Security Council resolutions on Syria and Iran.
Russia is aware of the extent of the symbiosis between Iran and Syria, and how toppling one of their regimes would necessarily lead to the other’s downfall. [The defeat of one of these regimes] would have grave political consequences and result in the loss of important alliances. The Syrian regime’s downfall would negatively impact Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, giving countries such as Israel the opportunity to pounce on them. [Israel] would also be able to wage war on Iran without fear of Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian [retaliation]. This would thus limit Israeli losses to an acceptable level - especially if the United States were to partake in such a war.
Russia considers the present escalation on the part of Europe, the United States and regional powers opposing Iran as a warning signal directed towards its Iranian ally. This has caused it to espouse an increasingly hardline stance - in conjunction with Iran - in defense of the Syrian regime. It views the situation in Syria as one of imminent danger, whereby the regime’s collapse would permit the West and Israel to wage war on Iran. According to the analysis of Le Figaro last September, the Syrian regime’s downfall would deal a fatal blow to the “Shiite Crescent” that has been causing Sunni countries a great deal of anguish. [This scenario could be the reason behind the warning from outgoing Russian Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, that “any Western attack on Iran would constitute a direct threat to Russian national security.” In other words: “Iran is our neighbor and we will not accept any aggression against it.”
This Russian position applies equally to Syria, and Russia is blocking the adoption of any resolution that demands or permits international action against Syria.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov contended that the Western view clashed with that of his country when it came to Syria. He contended that the [West’s] proposals [regarding Syria] at the UN Security Council were limited to [options involving the end of] the Assad regime. He asserted that Russia did not agree with such proposals. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed a similar view with regards to the Western proposals being formulated against Iran. He stated that he considered the sanctions against the Iranian regime to be [excessive], and that “what is happening can be considered an attempt to overthrow the regime.” He declared that the “threats of additional sanctions against Iran, now that the Security Council has already imposed all possible punitive pressures in retaliation for Iran’s nuclear program, and the threat of air strikes, could hinder efforts to resolve the standoff through talks.”
These Russian statements were not the result of a spur-of-the-moment decision. They were accompanied by decisive actions on the ground, especially in relation to Syria. [At the time these statements were made], the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov visited the port of Tartus. During the visit, Syrian Defense Minister Major General Daoud Rajha boarded the carrier [and spoke to] the Russian Ambassador to Damascus affirming that “the Russian aircraft carrier’s visit to Syria is proof of the profound relations and cooperation between the two countries,” while also expressing a “mutual desire to develop fruitful cooperation in all fields between the two countries.” [In addition], a Russian ship loaded with “highly dangerous” weapons recently arrived in Syria. This prompted the American administration to express its concern and ask Moscow to clarify the nature of the ship’s cargo. Other information pointed to Russia supplying Syria with S-300 surface-to-air missiles in anticipation of a possible NATO intervention in Syria.
It is clear that Russia has lately absorbed the lessons it learned from the downfall of its Iraqi and Libyan allies. It has become aware that the toppling of additional allies would signify a further degradation of Russia’s standing - one completely contrary to “New Russia’s” desire to re-establish its role in global affairs. [These developments indicate] that the issues pertaining to the Syrian and Iranian regimes have become tied into the broader contest between international and regional powers.
Consequently, the option of toppling the Syrian regime - a scenario desired by America and Europe and awaited by Israel and other regional players - has become difficult if not impossible to achieve. This means that the Syrian opposition must reevaluate its calculations and take into account the resolutions of the upcoming meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo on January 22. [This meeting will include discussions relating to] the Arab Observer Mission, as well as the Qatari Emir’s proposal to send Arab troops to Syria “to stop the killing” there. The meeting will also focus on reviewing the extent to which Syria has fulfilled the commitments it agreed to [prior to the] Arab initiative and in light of the report presented by the head of the Arab Observer Mission. On Sunday January 25, the Syrian President offered a general amnesty for “all crimes committed.”