By Habibe Ozdal
On Feb. 4, 2012, Russia vetoed the draft resolution that was presented to the UN Security Council regarding the condemnation of the violent acts in Syria.
Even though, in accordance with Moscow’s demands, many amendments were made to the resolution, which was drafted by the Arab League and supported by the West, the resolution was vetoed by both Russia and China. The resolution condemned the Damascus government, requested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turn his duties over to his assistant and further requested that the violent acts against civilians end. Russia objected to the resolution on the grounds of the text being “biased” and because it did not condemn the armed opposition. As Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, stated, “It is unacceptable to hold the government solely responsible for the violent acts.” Moscow also claims requesting that Assad step down means a regime change, and a regime change is still not acceptable to Russia. After the vetoed resolution, the common point of criticism in international public opinion toward Russia is that Moscow has been green-lighting the continued bloody conflicts in Syria. After the UN Security Council meeting on Feb. 4, the meeting on Feb. 7 between Lavrov and Assad was highly anticipated. The aim and result of this diplomatic endeavor by Russia, which repeatedly stated that a diplomatic solution is a must in Syria, was impatiently awaited by all actors.
It is possible to see through photographs how Lavrov was welcomed with great enthusiasm by regime supporters in Syria. Lavrov’s statements after the meeting stressed two main points: first, Assad’s promise to stop the violence and second, the announcement of the date for the referendum on the new constitution is close. It is said that a plan concerning a new actor, who will step in in order to sustain the regime, has been discussed in detail. It is evident that this “cosmetic” change aims to maintain the Assad regime.
Answering the questions, “Will the situation in Syria calm down?” or “Will the violence stop?” is a hard thing to do. However, the discussions on Syria require a more macro point of view. It seems like the issue has gone far beyond a situation in which Russia was protecting its most important ally. While maintaining the Assad regime seems impossible for all states but Russia, Moscow’s focus on sustaining the regime shows us a compromise is far off.
On the other hand, the question marks concerning the continuation of Moscow’s current policy are on the rise since the Assad regime, which has become the “tyranny of a minority” with regard to the internal dynamics of Syria, has lost its authority within the country. There is an important consensus that the Assad regime has entered a cul-de-sac, with 7,000 people (8,000 according to some sources) killed since the conflicts and uprisings began. Russia is not disconnected from these realities; however, evidently some different factors have been taken into consideration in Russia’s policy-making.
International aspect of Syria issue
As one may remember, the reasons for Russia’s opposition to an international intervention have been explained around some components. The first is that Damascus is Moscow’s most important ally in the Middle East. Second, apart from trade relations (Russia is Syria’s fifth biggest trade partner) and military agreements, which are worth up to $4 billion according to Russian media, Russia’s only military base in the Mediterranean is located in Tartus. The third component is Russia’s general tendency to see uprisings as part of a country’s internal affairs. Nevertheless, these factors are not sufficient to explain Russia’s veto because at this point, Russia has started to be left out in the international diplomatic arena.
When we look at the issue on a macro level, it is evident that Syria has become the field on which a power struggle is occurring between Russia and Western powers. Even though this situation is not a first, the magnitude of this occurrence is new. The reason why the Cold War era has been intensively referred to recently is because tension between Russia (and China) and the West over Syria has come to light. Despite the structural transformations taking place in the world, the US and Russia still continue their power struggle, and the Middle East is one of the regions where this occurs. The increasing presence of the US in the Middle East, especially after the Iraq War, has been met with Russian initiatives, intensifying its relations with Syria and Iran. Therefore, replacing the Assad regime with a pro-Western one is a nightmare for Russia.
Russia’s opposition to West’s one-sided initiatives
After the Iraq War, Russia has opposed the one-sided initiatives of the West. Moreover, Russia today, despite all its weaknesses, is very different than the Russia of the early 2000s. Moscow, which now has something to say about the Middle East in general and Syria in particular, prefers to take up a position that is independent of, and at times even in opposition to, the West.
The situation in which Syria serves as a “bargaining” chip for Russia and the West in disputed matters, even if they are unrelated to Syria, should also be mentioned. One such dispute is the missile shield project, which is planned to be deployed in Europe and has been handed over to NATO by the US. It is important to point out that Russia perceives the project as a threat, and NATO has not answered Russia’s proposal, which aims to realize the project through a Russia-NATO partnership. Nowadays, while the issue has been dealt with in the Russia-NATO Council, anticipation is focused on the NATO Summit in Chicago that will be held in May 2012.
At this point, the aim of Russian diplomacy is an enigma. One of the scenarios, if Assad does not “keep his promise” and stops the violence, is that the West can one-sidedly intervene in Syria. If this happens, it will show not only the failure of Russian diplomacy, but also that Russia’s claims of being a “superpower” and a “balancing pole” can be ignored once more. Both consequences, undoubtedly, are disadvantageous for Russia. However, Western countries, for different reasons, are not very willing to collectively intervene in Syria. Both Russia’s vetoes and Western criticisms, which have not moved beyond mere talk, give the Assad regime extra time.
While the bargaining and the power struggle between the great powers continue and civilian deaths are on the rise in Syria, the states — the core components of international relations — aim to maximize their national interests and continue to sustain their power.
Habibe Ozdal, USAK Center for Eurasian Studies