Is the US Coming Around to Russia's Position on Syria?

Article Summary
The idea that Russia is shifting its position on Syria to more closely match that of the West is a fallacy, writes Semih Idiz. Signs like the creation of the “Syrian Contact Group” and a convergence between Russia and the US over the dangers of a potential Islamist government in Syria seem to suggest the opposite: the US is sliding closer to Russia.

That Russia is changing its approach to the Syrian issue and coming closer to the position of the West is nothing but a product of the diplomatic rumor mill. For Moscow, Syria remains, beyond a doubt, a strategic asset that can never be given up. The heavy weapons recently shipped to Syria from Russia are but one indicator of this.

Russia is not denying its assistance to the Syrian regime, saying that it is regulated by long-standing legal accords. Reports that the CIA, with the support of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia is providing weapons to Syrian opposition through illegal channels is pushing Moscow to give more backing — if not to Bashar al-Assad — to the Baath regime.

While on the surface a “cold war” appears to be raging between the US and Russia, a between-the-lines reading of the developments on the ground suggests otherwise. The first sign of this is the fact that the “Friends of Syria” conference — in which Turkey’s enthusiasm was constantly being impeded by Russia — is now being replaced by the “Syrian Contact Group,” which will include Russia.

Moscow opposed the Friends of Syria group from the outset, labeling it the “Group to Change Syrian Regime.”  The “Syrian Contact Group,” which Iran, another powerful material and political supporter of the Assad regime, also wants to join, will have its first meeting on June 30 in Geneva.

The results of this meeting are far from certain, but in spite of some reports and statements to the contrary, there are signs that the US is sliding closer to Russia. Observers note that the two superpowers, who are also key members of the UN Security Council, converge on one basic question.

That question is the uncertainty over what kind of regime the majority Sunnis will put together should the Baath regime collapse. Moscow and Washington, worried about the rise of Islamists in Egypt, seem to be getting closer to agreeing on the formula of “Assad should go, but the regime can stay.”

Meanwhile, former US diplomat Henri Barkey, now a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, wrote an article on Al-Monitor that offers clues to the US’ new approach to Syria.

Barkey wrote that Russia was the protector of Christians in the region during the Ottoman era, and contends that the same applies today as well. Barkey noted that the Alawites — who constitute 12% of Syrian population but control the government and army — and the minority Christians feel anxious about their futures should the Baath regime fall.

He believes that for the Russians to take on the role of defending the Alawites and the Christians will help preserve the integrity of Syria. According to this plan, Russia’s strategic interests in Syria will be recognized by the US. This will also oddly enough be to Israel’s liking, as it fears a radical Sunni takeover should the Baathists depart. Iran thinks along the same lines as Russia.

Of course, this is not an easy formula to accept for the Sunnis, who claim that not only are they under attack from pro-Assad Alawite militias called the Shabbiha but also from Alawite villagers and other radical elements who believe that the regime will disintegrate sooner or later.

Finally, there is Turkey. Can The AKP government, which has made clear its sympathy for the Sunnis of the region, accept Russia’s strategic presence in Syria in order to preserve minority rule even if Assad leaves the scene?

In short, the Syrian issue has gone beyond one of “a brutal tyranny that oppresses its people” to become one feeding on regional Islamic aspirations, and fears of radical Islam on a global level.

This is exactly what Assad, who turned out to be more clever than everyone thought, has been aiming for. The solution to the crisis will be based off of this reality — nobody cares about the humanitarian dimensions of the issue.

Found in: usa on syria, syrian contact group, syrian, russia on syria, friends of syria, bashar al-assad

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