Russia's Shift on Syria Crisis Raises Many New Questions

Article Summary
Russia’s apparent shift in stance toward the Syrian regime has left many analysts puzzled, writes Raghida Dargham. Some suggest it is preparing to strike a deal with the US, while others see its backing of Kofi Annan’s initiative as a reflection of its desire to shape the course of any final settlement.

According to political and diplomatic sources in New York, Russia is backing UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s bid to end the violence in Syria. Russia’s approval is perceived as a real shift in its position toward Syria, and not merely another maneuver. Nevertheless, Russia’s shift in stance carries little to no significance. The statement issued by the UN is primarily a tool to benefit the West. It also includes many compromises to suit Russia and China, to the disapproval of the US and Europe.

The slight shift in the Russian stance vis-a-vis Syria was apparent in the Russian foreign minister’s recent speech [on March 20, 2012], when he accused Assad of “making a lot of mistakes,” and did not refer to him as the leader of the transitional period. However, this speech can be interpreted in different ways. Many observers are still unclear on Russia’s position. It may therefore be premature to trust in this interpretation of recent Russian statements.

For many pundits, the real reason behind Russia’s shift remains a mystery. Some believe that Russia is preparing to strike a deal with the US with regard to who will lead the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, others say that Russia is ready to engage with Kofi Annan on the grounds that Moscow holds the key to the success of the UN bid to find a solution in Syria. This gives Russia a greater amount of influence than the other members of the Security Council in shaping the course of developments.

However, what is clear in this context is that Russia is playing the major role in the region, and has sidelined Iran and Turkey, said the same sources. Iran has only been used as a cover or for misleading purposes, which might soon provoke a Turkish reaction at the Istanbul conference to be held in early April. The actions and the rhetoric that the Turks will adopt at the conference will be strongly based on how Annan’s work in Syria pans out following the presidential statement. Turkey’s reaction to these events does not seem encouraging.

Following the issuance of the presidential statement, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that it was “necessary to prepare a collective plan of action, because calls alone are not enough, as they buy more time for the regime.”

This speech raises many questions with regard to the Istanbul conference, which may be postponed to allow the statement to have its desired effect.

Some have even raised questions as to whether Russia’s position is intended to disrupt the conference, as Russia was strongly opposed the first Friends of Syria conference, which took place in Tunisia a few weeks ago. It has also been said that Russia will not attend the conference because it will be held in Turkey. Russia does not want to acknowledge Turkey’s role in resolving the Syrian issue. According to well-informed sources, the conference might be diminished by Kofi Annan’s efforts as well as by the presidential statement, which has only emerged as a result of considerable efforts by Syria’s major "Friends."

The most recent Russian positions have left us with contradictory impressions. Many believe that Moscow will continue to support the Syrian regime. The Istanbul conference, on the other hand, will be held in an attempt to provide a new approach to the Syrian crisis. More pressure will be placed on Assad’s regime, as it seems that no solution is in the offing.

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