Whenever the world seemed to start caving in around them, Syrian politicians have leaned on the Russians for support. Moscow, both now and during the Soviet era, has always been Syria’s “security blanket”. Syrian leaders, however, have almost equally misjudged how far Russia was willing to go to help them.
In 1956, then-president Shukri al-Quwatli visited Moscow seeking Russian support for Egypt in the infamous Suez War. He roared at the Kremlin: “Syria wants you to send in that big Red Army that defeated [Adolf] Hitler!”
A few years earlier, president Husni al-Za’im threatened at a press conference: “If the Americans continue to provoke me, I will extend my hand to the Russians. Yes, I will do that. I will go to Moscow and let a Third World War erupt from right over here, from Damascus!”
Today, 63 years later, there are many in Damascus who, like Husni al-Za’im, wrongly believe that Moscow would indeed ignite a “Third World War” for the sake of Syria. To show their support for the strongman of Moscow, these same Syrians came out demonstrating in favor of Vladimir Putin, the man behind his country’s strong pro-Syria stance, at the gates the Russian Embassy in Damascus. Carrying photos of Putin, they wished him luck in his bid for re-election to the Russian presidency. A senior Lebanese figure recently returned from Moscow and was quoted saying: “I heard from the Russians that if Putin stays, then [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad stays.”
These Syrians are waiting for Putin to return to the Kremlin. Others, however, are waiting for him to change his positions on Syria shortly after his re-election. They believe that he has stood behind Syria since disturbances began a year ago for one reason only: to re-establish his country’s image and position as a powerful and influential Middle East broker – as a superpower that can stand up for its allies should the need arise.
It’s not about the Soviet-era supply and maintenance base in the port city of Tartus, dating back to 1971. Russia’s macro-interests are much more strategic. Putin was seemingly telling the world: “No solutions for the Middle East can be reached anymore in complete disregard for Russian interests. If you want things done, you have to do it through us.”
Apart from that, everything is on the table for the Russians, including regime change in Syria. Putin realizes that he cannot have the entire cake in Syria, on his own – at least not forever. A staunch pro-regime position might secure paramount influence in today’s Syria, but it would eventually leave the Russians out of any international future understanding for Syria, and greatly damage Russia’s image in the eyes of the opposition street in Syria itself. Putin would rather “share” Syria with the United States and the European Union than be left out completely, as is the case with Libya. To do that, one thing has to happen: The Americans and Europeans have to ask for his help, and they have to do so nicely.
Calling its recent veto at the United Nations “despicable” and “disgusting” will not help change Russia’s position on Syria. Rather, it will only deepen Putin’s anger. The US and the EU have to treat him with respect and show that they need Russia if they want to see a change of position on Syria. Serious talks, at the highest level, need to find common ground on Syria. The more Russia feels needed and important, the more it will yield on the issue.
Moscow may like the Syrian regime, but it certainly likes Russian interests in the Middle East a whole lot more. This is the fundamental thing that Syrian authorities still remarkably fail to understand. Moscow needs assurances that its political influence will be maintained in Syria, and needs guarantees on a basket of other issues, such as the US defense shield in Europe, for example, and, of course, Georgia.
Money of course would also likely change Russia’s position, clearly from all the courting currently underway between the Kremlin and heavyweight countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who are planning to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov this month. If politics doesn’t persuade the Russians to support regime change in Damascus, then money will.
Several indicators to this effect have come out of Moscow in recent days. One was an interview last Friday by Putin with six international journalists, where he said he didn’t have “a special relationship with Syria”. He noted that Russia’s trade relations with Damascus did not exceed Britain’s, and when asked about chances of the regime’s survival, he failed to defend his Syrian allies aggressively. Instead, he surprised the journalists with a blunt statement: “I don’t know, and I can’t speculate on this.”
Then came statements by Georgy Petrov, deputy president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who said the chamber would temporarily suspend doing business in Syria until “the situation normalized”.
Russia also recently suspended – but did not cancel – touristic cooperation with Syria because of the deteriorating security conditions. According to the influential Syrian economic bimonthly Aliqtisadi, bilateral Syrian-Russian trade in 2011, “despite the difficult conditions in Syria, stood at US$2 billion”. Russian investments in Syria stood at $19.4 billion in 2009.
The more the Russians distance themselves, either economically or politically, from Damascus, the more likely this will damage the Syrian economy, where the pound now stands at a historic 83 to the US dollar, threatening the state – and ordinary Syrians – with bankruptcy.
On a separate track, US diplomats seem to have finally realized what it takes to strengthen cooperation with the Russians on Syria, and are doing it rather aggressively.
Last Thursday, Jeffrey Feltman, US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, spoke to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee about Syria. First, he clearly avoided using provocative words to describe the Russians, as the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, had done – wanting to court rather than provoke them. Feltman noted that Russia’s stance on Syria “is a key element in how this goes forward”. The Russians can use their influence, he added, “to be part of the solution in Syria”.
Feltman said that during a recent visit to Moscow, he sensed “a lot discomfort” with Russia’s international isolation due to two vetoes at the UN, in October and January. He also said he did not see a fundamental difference between his country and Russia over Syria, since both wanted to democratize the nation and both wanted to end the violence.
On February 29, Dennis Ross, the influential American diplomat who handled peace talks in the 1990s and served as special adviser on Iran to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton until recently, penned an article further courting the Russians on Syria. Writing for USA Today, Ross said dealing with Russia was “vital” and noted that when or if the Russians change their position on Syria, “the balance of power is likely to shift”. He said Moscow needed to “be able to take credit” for producing regime change in Syria – in whatever manner it likes – and seal the deal just like the GCC signed off on Yemen and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization signed off on Libya.
And finally came a statement in The Moscow Times saying: “Russia has made it clear that it will not be able to stop other countries from launching a military intervention if they try to do it without UN approval.” Despite a routine translation of the Russian press in several Syrian state-run dailies, apparently nobody picked that up, perhaps on purpose. That statement seemed to be telling the Syrians that there were limits to how far Russian could go. If a “surgical strike” were to happen, Russia was helpless at stopping it.
The Syrian-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed between then-president Hafez al-Assad and the USSR in October 1980, does not include a clause for mutual defense. It specifies regular consultations on bilateral and multilateral issues, coordination of policies, and military cooperation – but it does not oblige Moscow to take military action to defend Syria. That means the limit of how far the Russians can go, given current circumstances, is the recent veto at the UN. It cannot do more to help the Syrians.
Nobody realizes that better than Putin himself, who needs a success story “the day after” he returns to power in Moscow. It needs to make him and his country feel relevant, strong, democratic, and accepted within the international community. That success story can be Syria.
This article appeared in Asia Times Online on March 6, 2011 entitled, “Putin offfers threadbare blanket for Syria.”