For Parties Involved in the Syrian Crisis, Russian Veto is a Game Changer

Article Summary
The Russian veto of the UN Security Council Resolution on Syria has changed the options facing all players involved in the crisis. Sami Kleib looks at how the international community and the Syrian opposition will have to reconfigure their strategies in response to Russia’s defense of the Assad regime.

After 11 months of fighting in Syria, the world has finally realized that the situation there is much more complicated than certain prominent Western leaders had expected. Direct military intervention [in Syria] is not an option, and neither is bringing down the regime by force. Thus, a settlement must be [reached] at the Security Council to [allow the different players involved to save face]. [Any potential settlement] would mean enticing the Russians into approving a [limited] resolution [that only calls for] the end of violence and the [holding] dialogue [in Syria]. But, as international conflict is [now] at its peak, a settlement also appears to be very difficult to achieve.

Qatar has managed to bring the issue of the Syrian crisis before the [UN] Security Council. Prime Minister Hamad Bin-Jassem Bin-Jabr Al Thani consequently received praised from the Americans, the British, and the French in the Council session that was held two days ago [on February 1, 2011]. This veteran diplomat [Sheikh Hamad] realizes that he is taking risks by involving himself [so deeply] in the Syrian crisis. To succeed in at the UNSC is [politically] dangerous, but [to fail] would be even more so. Sheikh Hamad dragged all the Arabs to the UNSC, internationalizing the crisis par excellence. A few months ago, all the Arabs remained certain that there would be no internationalization [of any sort] of the Syrian crisis. Praise [for this position] was directed towards Nabil al-Arabi, secretary-general of the Arab League, who is now just as confused as most of the world in how to deal with the crisis in Syria.

Russia has successfully become the center of attention in the UNSC. The West and the Arabs [which back action by the UNSC], will now have to further pander to Russia in order to obtain its signature on a joint draft resolution. However, Vladimir Putin - along with [his successor] Dmitry Medvedev - took revenge on the Western intervention into their country. [Putin’s] hands were on the Syrian dossier, but his eye were elsewhere: The US State Department’s latest statement expressing “disappointment” over the Russian authorities’ refusal to nominate opposition [leader] Gregory Yavlinsky in the presidential elections. Putin will maintain his firm position [over Syria], until he can ensure that the upcoming Russian presidential elections [on March 4] pass without him facing serious losses.
Neither Russia nor China will accept a forced change of the Syrian regime. It is evident that Russia has been providing cover for the Syrian military’s operations. Any decision taken by the Syrian security apparatus to take “decisive military [action]” has been a red line over the past months. Moscow has repeatedly informed the Syrian leadership of the need for prudence, and of the need to maintain a good relationship with the Arab League. However, this all changed in the past few days. What happened?

The Syrian regime has succeeded in turning the “trap” of [Arab monitors] to its advantage. The observers’ [principle task] was to [monitor the violence in the country] thus providing encouragement for demonstrations. [After they entered Syria], they discovered that the situation on the ground was very different from what was being aired on satellite TV channels. A Western diplomatic report stated that a comprehensive plan had been set up for demonstrators to occupy several large arenas in major cities - including Damascus - in the presence of the observers. [According to the plan], these squares were supposed to turn into something like Tahrir Square in Cairo. What actually happened was quite the opposite. The Syrian regime was able to get the the team of observers - namely the team’s head Sudanese Lieutenant General Mohammed al-Dabi - to admit that gunmen were present in the Syrian cities and countryside.

The Syrian regime found in the observers what it had long been looking for: Arab recognition of the existence of militants on one hand, and Russian cover to eliminate these militants on the other. In addition, [considerable] segments of the Syrian population have grown [alarmed] by the lack of security in their areas and are requesting the presence of the army, even if its [members] secretly belong to the opposition.

Geopolitical Interests

[According to] the Syrian regime, a continuation of the current situation [of insecurity] would allow the militants to expand [geographically], and this would further encourage the people to demonstrate. Weapons have been distributed [across Syria] in a way that threatens to “undermine the prestige” of the state. [For its part], the state has been dealt several blows, most notably the bombing of key security and intelligence headquarters in Damascus.

It is difficult to imagine that any security decision has been made to take decisive [action against the opposition] without close coordination with the Russians - and probably the Iranians as well. The battle is no longer confined to Syria. The sequence of events suggests that Moscow, Tehran and Damascus are waging a strategic war from the Syrian territory. Failure or backing down is unimaginable [for this axis]. Thus, decisive action is the [only available] strategic option. [Areas subject to violent crackdowns, such as] Homs and Hama will no longer be exceptions to the rule when the suburbs of Damascus are seized [by the army]. Russia is not only supporting [Syria] politically - there is very close security cooperation [between the two countries] which is made evident by the fact that Russian weapons have been repeatedly entered the country through the port of Tartus.

Not many [people] paid attention to the serious statements made by Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov] a few days ago. The veteran diplomat said that some [member] states of the UN Security Council are taking advantage of the situation in Syria to further their personal geopolitical interests, adding that “this is [characteristic of] the last century and reflects an old psychology that must be done away with.” Lavrov went so far as to level implicit accusations against the Gulf States. Walid al-Moallem [Syria’s foreign minister] himself could not have leveled a harsher comment against the regional and international scene.

The issue will not end here. At the [48th] Munich Security Conference to be held on February 4, Sergey Lavrov will [surely] utter harsh words on NATO’s operation in Libya. The Russians have not yet absorbed what they call the NATO “deception”, which originated with a humanitarian call against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and ended in a large-scale military operation which overthrew the Libyan regime and sidelined Russia’s interests there.

Russian statements on Syria, the missile shield and Western criticisms of the elections in Russia indicate that Moscow seeks to restore its global role, and that it is concerned over a potential confrontational future with the West over the coming decades. The Syrian crisis offered it a golden opportunity to confront Western projects.

Sergei Chemezov, Director General of Russian Technologies State Corporation, has said that Syria is the barometer of Russia's image in the Middle East and Africa. The senior official stressed the need “for Moscow to fulfill all its obligations in the military and technical fields in Syria, so that Russia will not lose access to the arms market in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Therefore, the world [will bear witness to] long-term Russian strategic shifts, which might expand further if Vladimir Putin returns to power in the upcoming elections. How could Moscow [possibly] give up a key card like the one it holds in Syria at this critical juncture?

Russia’s clarity of vision stands in stark contrast to the West’s ambiguous approach [to dealing with the Syrian crisis]. Statements made by a senior French security official who [recently] visited Lebanon reflected this confusion. France tops the list of [countries] that seek the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime without a real plan for doing so. The Syrian army is unlikely to disintegrate anytime soon. Assad still controls the security forces. The Syrian President tells his visitors - the last of whom was former [Lebanese] minister Wi’am Wahab - that he is highly confident on both the security and political [levels]. The Syrian people are divided [in opinion], and most Western diplomatic reports confirm that the Syrian president is still very popular. The US Embassy in Beirut and other Western diplomats recently told visitors that Assad’s popularity exceeds 55 to 60 percent.

A few days ago, the British paper The Guardian wrote: “The Western media coverage of the events in Syria ignores information and surveys whose results contradict the prevailing impression that the Syrian people want to topple Assad.” The newspaper referred to a poll commissioned by “Qatar Foundation” revealing that 55 percent of the Syrians do not want [to see] their president go out of fear of a civil war.

The French security official who recently visited Beirut was asked about the real [situation on the ground] in Syria, especially regarding the [presence] of arms and militants. He said that Paris does not know how Assad could even be toppled, nor does it know what will happen to Syria if this were to occur. [The French official] also pointed out Turkey’s ambivalent position [on Syria], suggesting that Ankara had  regressed [from its old position].

The Syrians are aware of the reasons why the Turks have backed away from their [previous] firm position, although they continue their condemnation [of the Syrian regime]. There are certain security [issues] which only the [intelligence] agencies of the two countries know about. The Syrians also know that the Jordanian army has recently killed a young man attempting to smuggle weapons to Syria. The Jordanians have made a strict decision against intervention [in the Syrian crisis]. Iraq, on the other hand, is more willing than ever to follow Iran and help Syria economically.

The Americans, in turn, are confused. They want to overthrow Assad because they have no other option at the moment. What is Barack Obama doing? Since April, Obama has called for Assad’s departure. He repeated the same thing in a joint statement with France, Germany, and Britain in mid-August. Nothing happened. Assad - along with his wife and children - can still go down to the heart of Damascus and address his people without having to wear a [bullet-proof] protective vest. Every single day that Assad stays in power is a political loss for Obama and Sarkozy ahead of their repsective presidential elections. Should they leave Assad in power until the elections? This requires serious contemplation.

No one has the answer. Western sources have pointed to a surge in enthusiasm for arming the opposition. Decisive stances must be taken. Money is available; indeed, the Gulf states have paid substantially in past months. A crisis cell comprised of French and Americans has been set up in France. Contacts with opposition parties are also in full swing. It unacceptable to allow Assad to win a military contest.

Homs Determines the Fate [of Syria]

Several issues will be determined at the gates of Homs. If the Syrian army [manages to] control the city as it has the Damascus suburbs, it will [prevent] the Syrian National Council (SNC) [from gaining influence there]. This is one of its big goals. Ever since SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun announced his alliance with Riad al-Assad, the arms and militants have gained affiliation with the council. The plan of the Syrian security forces is clear: Every militant represents a potential casualty. The Syrian central [goverment has made a coclusive decision. Its priority is first to eliminate the militants, then there will be a return to politics.

The Russians have not yet shut the doors of the Security Council. They are probably waiting to see what steps [Assad’s] security forces will take. Homs may become the barometer. The Syrian army may penetrate Homs through a vicious battle, or it may not enter it [at all] if a settlement is reached at the Security Council.

It is in Russia’s interest to negotiate on behalf of a strong regime. Therefore, it is in Russia’s interest for the Syrian army to controls as many areas [in Syria] as it can. Politicking for a regime in a strong military position is much easier than politicking for a weak regime.

Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said: “In the Moroccan draft resolution, we found some provisions that we had also included in ours, and this raises hope [of reaching an agreement on the Syrian crisis].” With these words, the Russian diplomat left the door open for a settlement. Moscow wants a settlement which limits itself to the three goals set by Lavrov: A cessation of violence by all parties, a ban on foreign military intervention, and the setting up of a conciliatory conference.

What would the Russians do if [the Syrian military] took decisive action and reached the gates of Homs? Were this to take place, they would exert maximum pressure on their Western counterparts. They inherently do not want a massacre to take place in Homs, as this would weaken their position. However, they may employ [such a massacre] to strengthen their own calls for action, which include claims that an intra-Syrian dialogue is necessary to save Syria. [By successfully organizing this type of dialogue], they would also save the face of those who are calling for the toppling of Assad without having the ability to do so.

A few days ago, Lavrov laid out a potentially attractive Russian settlement in front of Western [leaders]. He said that “Moscow is not Bashar al-Assad’s ally. The Syrians are the ones who will decide how to run their own country. I do not think that asking people to resign is in line with the policy of Syrians. Changing regimes is not our responsibility”.

This talk satisfied the West, and [at the same time] did not bother Syria. Russia wants the holding of a dialogue between the government and the opposition without preconditions. [Russia would not mind if] for the dialogue to lead to the formation of a national unity government that would oversee future elections. [It would not even necessarily mind] for these elections to lead to Assad’s departure. But Moscow continues to reject any resort to military force or external interference.


What Does the Opposition Say?
[The opposition] says that decisive military [action] is not possible because some are harboring militants in their homes. [The opposition also] says that Moscow “sells and buys,” and if it finds selling to be in its interest, it will not hesitate to do so. The West has consistently assured [the opposition] that the sanctions it has imposed on the regime, the military pressure on the ground and the cutting of most of Syria’s relations with the Arabs and the West will lead to the fall of the regime. The opposition claims that Assad’s fall is only a matter of time, but it provides no distinct answers when asked how this will happen.

There are two currents within the opposition. The first is that of the SNC, which the West currently wants to see expanded [to include] other sects, minorities, and a political groups. [As it stands] the Muslim Brotherhood makes up a substantial part of the SNC. The second [current] is that of the National Coordination Committee (NCC), led by Dr. Haytham Manna. Manna has so far succeeded [in maintaining an equal distance from all parties]. He has not [exposed all] of his cards to one particular side [or to one particular international player]. Everyone is trying to get closer to him, including Washington, Paris and Moscow. He is probably the most accepted opposition [figure] inside Syria today. Moscow wants him to hold a dialogue with the regime, Iran knows him and Damascus is ready to open [channels] with him.

In addition to these [two] currents, [there is the] Kurdish factor. This is an even more complicated issue. The conference held in Arbil in Iraq under the wings of Massoud al-Barazani [president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party] has shown that the Kurds are carefully calculating every step of their future. The Kurds are not only observing developments in Syria, but they are also keeping an eye on Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Any uncalculated step on their part may produce negative results. They raised a slogan which no Syrian oppositionist can accept: “The right to self-determination within the Syrian unity.” This is a warning not only to Syria, but also to Turkey and Iran.

Breakthrough or Explosion?

The Syrian decision to take decisive military [action] might not have been taken had it not been for a domestic conviction that [the issue of opposition weapons] was bound to spiral out of control. [It was also predicated on] Russian cover and Iranian support.

For a while now, Tehran has been trying to play a significant and behind-the-scenes role along with Turkey. The two sides have been in contact several times. This has coincided with a new Iranian openness toward the International [Atomic] Energy Agency, whose delegation completed three a 3 day of Iran without any obstruction. It is also being rumored that Turkey has delivered messages to some Western countries about the Iranian nuclear program. [This dialogue] also coincided with the severely tense relations between Ankara and Paris relating to [the French parliament’s] adoption of a law criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide.

The West is currently muddled on how to deal with Iran. Israel is raising the pressure on Iran. Its leaders are threatening imminent military action. Tehran has responded with threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. The price of a barrel of oil is fluctuating. Obama's supporters are worried about his inevitable loss [in the US presidential elections] were the price of a barrel [of oil] to exceed the threshold of $130. US envoys have rushed to the region to calm the Israel impulsiveness. Conclusive promises have been made to besiege Iran economically and to target its oil industries. Saudi Arabia has stepped in to confirm that it would compensate for [any potential] shortage of oil in the world markets.

The West believes that tightening the noose around Iran’s neck is very important at the moment. It will also seek to to make the upcoming Iranian elections an internal problem for the regime in Tehran. [Western states will attempt to] rouse the internal opposition in Syria and [ensure] that the voices [of Syrian regime opponents] are heard abroad. Some also speak about possible security incidents and violent clashes.

It is hard to imagine that Iran will stand idly by in face of the [West’s] attempts to besiege it. Some have even gone so far as to say that [Iran] will not hesitate to go to war if it [is cornered]. Others rule out this possibility, saying that the Iranians are masters of [the art of] negotiations and in the game of advancing and retreating. The Iranians have not played all of their cards yet - they have many more [to play] from Iraq to Bahrain and Yemen, from Lebanon to Afghanistan.

Some say that in reality it was Iran who started the war [and that] military intervention in Syria will be just the beginning. A senior Iranian military official arrived in Damascus bearing a clear message from the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution, [Grand Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei. [Khameini allegedly said] that Iran, its people, its leadership and its army would stand with Syria if it is attacked. The messenger [who delivered this message] is a leader who is known for his credibility.

Once again, Iran has moved closer to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Its near-broken relations with Hamas were reestablished despite the pressure it faced from the Gulf [countries]. Khamenei recently met with Secretary General of the Islamic Jihad Movement Ramadan Abdullah Shallah. In the presence of Shallah, Khamenei stated, “The main goal behind the plan of the United States and some countries of the region in Syria is to deal a blow to the resistance front, because Syria supports the Palestinian and Islamic resistance.” He added, “Divine victory will inevitably be achieved.”

When Iran talks about “divine victory,” it keeps one hand on the trigger, but the other extended towards [possible negotiating partners]. Ramadan Shallah is not one of those visitors with whom [Iran] discusses diplomatic issues.

Competition is more heated than ever, and [the atmosphere] is fluctuating between détente and explosion. The main problem is that Obama and Sarkozy are at the height of their electoral campaigns. [The results of] a war [in Syria] are not guaranteed, and backtracking toward a settlement would [make them look politically weak]. Syria is trying to buy time, but still faces too difficult a situation to escape from the conflict outright. The crisis still has the potential to go anywhere.

Who can guarantee the success of a military intervention? And even if [the military option] succeeds, what about the future relationship between the [new] regime and the people who oppose [it]? What about [Syria’s] future policies? Will it be enough to [implement] radical changes within the Ba’ath Party, change the Constitution, form political parties or [introduce] new media laws to end the strife?

Syria appears appears to be [witnessing] its most dangerous times yet. When talk is limited to weapons, one’s vision becomes completely obscured in the dust of battles. This would hold especially true were Assad's opponents to call for his departure at all costs. Assad, as well, will try to survive whatever the cost. A quintessential regional and international battle is taking place on Syrian territory, and only the blood of Syrians is being spilt. 

Found in: unsc, sarkozy, lavrov, khamenei, hamas, ghalioun, churkin

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