By Hasan Selim Ozertem
After the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2011 and March 2012, the opposition’s protests in various parts of the country, mostly in Moscow, were temporarily sensationalized by some Western media outlets.
But the state culture of the Russian political system was hardly challenged by these protests. And Putin’s presidency, for the third time after a victory in the first round of the presidential election, will face many problems, in both its international and national agendas. The Syria crisis is one of them.
Even at a time when the presidential elections dominated Russian politics, Syria’s crisis remained one of the top issues of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. While trying to finalize its new cabinet’s structure, Putin is also attempting to play an active role in the Syria crisis with adept diplomat Sergey Lavrov.
While dictators fell from their long-occupied seats as a result of the popular movements that erupted in December 2010 in Tunisia and the Arab world, international support has been one of the many factors behind Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. With the support of China and Russia — permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the Assad “government” has remained determined to fight to protect its existing regime in the country.
First of all, Russia is not an ordinary supporter of the Assad administration. In addition to providing political support, it is Syria’s largest supplier of weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2011, Russia has supplied 78 percent of the Assad regime’s imported weapons during the past five years. In addition to providing arms, Russia postured its navy in the eastern Mediterranean to make clear its support for Syria, unlike the passivity it displayed during Libya’s revolution. Russian officials, despite the cease-fire initiated in Syria on April 12, are determined to preserve their naval presence near Syria’s coast.
The Russian role in the UN Security Council should be highlighted as well. Apart from blocking resolutions, the Russian stance also determines the Chinese stance. It appears that China has used its veto power less often than it has abstained. Since 1970, China has used its veto power eight times, Russia 13 times, and the United States 83 times in UN Security Council decisions. Taking into consideration China’s sparing use of its veto, analysts believe China took cues from Russia on how to vote in the UN Security Council on this issue.
Russia: an influential actor
For all these reasons, Russia stands out as an influential actor among those involved in the Syria crisis. The Annan plan, which went into effect on April 12, Moscow’s declarations of support for the Assad regime and communiqués with Damascus have placed Russia in this position. However, while the international community experiences deep anxiety over Assad’s failure to abide by the cease-fire, the argument can be made that that Russia is developing a “plan B.” It is important to reflect on the importance of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov’s announcement just before the cease-fire. He stated that Russia is ready to negotiate with the representatives of the Syrian opposition. From the beginning there has been a dialogue between Moscow and the Syrian opposition. Around the time when these statements were released, the Russian foreign minister also met with the opposition groups from Syria on April 17-18. He will meet with the Popular Front for Change and Liberation (PFCL) from Syria on April 26-27 as well.
Furthermore, Russia no longer insists on allowing Assad to remain in power. That is because, as Russian authorities have remarked, Moscow’s support for Assad must not be interpreted as Russia supporting the Arab leader, but rather as supporting the establishment of stability in Syria. As its image in the Middle East has worsened because of its support for the Assad regime, Russia’s shifting stance could also be understood as an attempt to improve its public relations.
It is difficult to claim that there has been a radical change in Russia’s stance. But Moscow has given the impression that it has taken this new position for strategic reasons, although it has not rushed itself for two reasons. The first reason is Russia’s regional and global interests. In his article, published in Moskovskie Novosti on Feb. 27 under the title “Russia and the Changing World” — referring to Western policies in the Middle East — Putin wrote that, Russia incurred political and economic losses in the past, and may seek different results in the Syrian situation. In the meantime, attempting to remain a “great power” on the worldwide political scene, Russia seems to be uncomfortable with the fact that the US bypasses the UNSC when it does not produce the desired results. The second major problem for Russia is the fragmented character of the opposition. For this reason, Russia is unsure with whom it could cooperate in Syria in the post-Assad period. As a result, the Kremlin, even as the Assad regime weakens, believes that the administration is the best alternative for now.
With its current policy, Russia gives the impression that it is unwilling to take risks and that it has a plan B. This demonstrates Russia’s pragmatic foreign policy. However, considering the fragility of the application of the Annan plan and the behavior of the Assad administration since April 12, it is a matter of international concern how Russia will react in the coming days, especially if global and regional actors become more unhappy with orders from Damascus. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that he has the impression that China will not be as enthusiastic as before to support Assad’s policies and that the current priority of the international community is to have talks with Russia. Erdoğan’s feelings toward Beijing are open to discussion. Regardless, it is certain that Moscow is the key player here and Putin, as the new president, will be the key actor.
As Assad continues to violate the Annan plan, his room to maneuver is narrowing. This also negatively affects the pragmatic position of Assad supporters, particularly his supporters in the Middle East. Furthermore, as the crisis in Syria deepens, the possibility of a divided Syria in the aftermath of Assad’s possible ousting becomes stronger. In this sense, those who seek stability in Syria should particularly expect a divided Syria in the long run, since this possibility will most certainly affect the entire Middle East.
Hasan Selim Ozertem, USAK Center for Energy Security Studies
Note: This analysis was first published at Today’s Zaman on 27 April 2012. This piece was translated by Sinem Vardaryildiz and edited by Kerim Rached.