Moscow Could be Key to Solving Syrian Crisis

Article Summary
While the Assad regime appears to be counting on Moscow to shield it from international intervention, Russia has submitted a draft resolution on the Syrian Crisis to the United Nations. Its careful balancing of Arab and international concerns could yield the solution to ending the bloodshed, writes Hussein Abdel-Aziz.

Since the start of protests in Syria in mid-March, the [UN] Security Council has been unable to appropriately deal with the Syrian [crisis], as it has been at loggerheads with Russia over its radical position regarding resolutions [taken] against the Syrian regime.

The Security Council was completely puzzled when, on October 5 [2011], Russia vetoed a European-drafted resolution that condemned Syria and threatened it with economic sanctions [over its crackdown on protesters].

Since then, Western countries have been unable to submit a draft resolution condemning the Syrian regime, for fear that it will be blocked by a Russian veto. In this context, the French Foreign Minister deplored the silence of the Security Council over the events taking place in Syria.

Why is Moscow fiercely defending Damascus? Are the economic and military reasons its only motive? Or are there political reasons related to the legacy of the Cold War? Is the Syrian crisis the new title of the everlasting conflict between Moscow and the West at this phase?

Ties between Russia and Syria were established decades ago. These relations were deeply consolidated during the Cold War, when Syria served as a foothold of great importance to the Soviet Union in the  Mediterranean Sea. Given the fact of its common borders with Israel, Syria [was well placed] in the Cold War between Moscow and Washington in an area of considerable strategic importance.

However, this historically strong relationship with Syria does not justify Russian support for the Syrian leadership. The Cold War is long over, not to mention that the relations between nations are not built on historical legacy so much as they are on [common] interests. [In politics], there is no eternal foe or lifelong friend.

Furthermore, the trade exchange between both countries hardly exceeds US $2 billion. Thus one can conclude that economic interests are not behind this blind support for Syria. This was also confirmed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his visit to Paris several months ago, where he stated that "there are no strategic economic relations between Russia and Syria."

So how can the Russian attitude towards Syria be interpreted? In order to answer this question, one needs to understand Russia's major strategic interests at the international level. Just like Syria, Russia enjoys a political rather than an economic relationship with most Middle Eastern countries. Meanwhile, the relations between Russia and Europe are economic first and foremost, clearly demonstrated by the size of trade between the two parties. As for Washington and Moscow, they are linked by strategic and geopolitical relations.

Today, Russia's problem does not lie in the Middle East, but in the way the West - and particularly the United States - deals with it. The West continues to follow the same strategy in negotiating with Putin's administration as it used to employ with Yeltsin's administration. Western powers are still flouting Moscow's key interests by seriously attempting to breach its national security system, as occurred in the Georgia-Russia crisis and with the imposition of missile shields on Moscow. This is not to mention that Washington is seeking to military and politically stifle any ambitious attempt by Russia to revive its previous role [as a superpower].

By defending Syria - which is a country of significant importance at the regional level - Russia can make headway in international negotiations. In other words, the Syrian crisis is merely another chapter of the conflict between Moscow and Washington - a fact which Syrian decision makers must take heed of. They limit the Russian position to the interests of these two countries alone, failing to recall that Russia's historical positions towards its allies are changing - starting with Mohammad Najibullah in Afghanistan; Saddam Hussein in Iraq; [Slobodan Milosevic] in Serbia; and finally [Mu’ammar] Qaddafi in Libya.

One day after joining the World Trade Organization, Russia proposed a draft resolution [on the violence in Syria] at the UN Security Council. This can be interpreted as a message to the West, saying that Russia's policy depends on the offers it receives. As for Russia’s bellicose statements to support Syria and provide it with sophisticated weapons, they are only part of Moscow's political game to restore its erstwhile status in the Western system.

Nonetheless, decision makers in Moscow are well aware that they cannot carry on with this standoff indefinitely. Eventually, the West will lose its patience and consequently take unilateral steps - and Russia will lose its opportunity to find a solution in Syria that preserves its own position. Furthermore, Russian diplomat Sergei Lavrov has talked about the need to find a solution in Syria along the lines of the Yemeni model.

Will Russia become the gateway to solving the Syrian crisis? The answer to this question depends on developments in Syria. The more the Syrian regime is solid and cohesive, the sturdier Russia’s position becomes. But when the Assad regime begins to show cracks, it won’t take long for Russia to shift its stance.

Found in: unsc, transitional period, syrian opposition, syrian crisis, syrian, snc, russian foreign policy, russian diplomacy in syrian crisis, russian, regional politics, ncb, military intervention, military, internationalization of the syrian crisis, haytham manna, foreign intervention, farouq al-sharaa, burhan ghalioun, arab league, arab initiative, arab

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