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Syria Situation: What Russia Is Forgetting – OpEd

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If anything in the last couple of weeks indicates, it is the fact that Annan Plan failed in Syria before it even started, and the Syria situation is going to be much worse. Without taking any side, and going into the moral dribble, it is time to admit, that it is not just a case of good versus evil, of a brutal dictator ruling and killing a majority of innocent people just for the high of it. It is more complicated than that, with major players of the region having direct, immediate and overwhelming influence in the situation.

With major powers from all over the World having some stake at the outcome, it is no more an Arab Spring uprising, one in a domino in traditionally the most volatile region of the planet. It is rather turning into a proxy war, with a distinct Shia-Alawite-Maronite force backed by Iran and Russia, and a Wahhabi Sunni force backed by the Saudis and supported by West. And let’s face it; a lot more people are going to die in the coming months with no near, clear and defined solution to this problem.

Different perspectives, different goals:

Like any conflict in any part of the globe ever, this has too a strict realist perspective to it, regardless of what either side claims or tries to portray. The Saudis saw Saddam fall, and give way to a Shia majority government, with the influence of Iran massively increased in a country which was acting as a counterweight to Iran for decades. The Saudis were also not satisfied with the US dithering in Bahrain, and decided enough was enough. Iran, facing a growing isolation, crumbling economy and a specter of war with Israel, is doing everything possible to keep its assets in Lebanon and Syria intact, Hezbollah ready and armed, and the connection to sea west of Israel intact and unbroken. That and having a Shia majority in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon would give it a definite upper hand in the Levant. Iran missed the opportunity in Bahrain to have a stronghold in East Arabia and Gulf, and is skeptical about future of Afghanistan, and it is determined not to let Syria slip away this time.

The situation in Russia and US is actually quite similar, as both are suffering from a huge dilemma. Russia just cannot let Syria, its last ally, major arms buyer and only naval base outside former Soviet Union to collapse. That would be a strategic suicide for a great power which is resurgent. Simultaneously, it is also tired of being associated with a murderous regime and rampant human rights abuse, which is also unbecoming of a modern power in this age of open media. The dilemma is distinctly evident from the highly diplomatic Mr. Lavrov trying to distance himself from Assad, while staunchly opposing any intervention. The situation in US is even more fluid. President Obama in his election year is increasingly under criticism from his right wing opponents on being soft on Syria and Russia. On the other hand, the outcome of Egypt and Libya was not as expected, and transition in Afghanistan is getting rougher everyday with the Pakistan problem, and a decade long war weary and impatient crowd at home is making matters worse. Combined with that is the pressure from Saudis and the Arab League to do something, the simultaneous dilemma knowing the last time Saudis helped in Afghanistan and the quagmire resulting from it, the European partners all in disarray and completely drowned in domestic politics and economic slowdown, and most importantly the very real deterrent factor of Russia supplied Syrian Air Defense systems. Nothing spells peace and non-interference like anti-aircraft missiles, and the United States, being a rational player in the field is well aware of that.

Now, a simple thing however is going unnoticed. During Libya, as well as Syria, a sizable voice was opposed to the intervention. During Libya three big powers like India, China, and Germany abstained in the UN resolution vote. During Syria, it was a double Veto, twice by Russia and China. But we can see, the blame in both the cases is squarely on Russia’s shoulder. During Libya, the abstention was smirked upon…with the talks of “Russia” not being able to understand the winds of changes, and being on the wrong side of history. This time it is open condemnation, and accusation…but strangely against Russia, only. Which raises the question, why Russia alone? During Libya it was almost one third of humanity, which abstained. But that was understandable, as they did not explicitly oppose, and thereby apparently lost right and credibility to criticize later, even though one can argue the deliberately vague wordings of the resolution, and its use later to topple Gaddafi. But strangely enough even in the latest Syria situation the fingers are only pointed towards Russia.

This particular series of event is a bit interesting as it brings out the inherent contradiction in US words and action. After the first reset during the Bush administration with Russia crumbled down during President Putin’s Munich Speech of 2007, to the run up of the Georgia war, there was a deliberate attempt to ignore publicly Russian concern on any situation. That is a deliberate psychological play, with an overt attempt to signify that US is not considering Russian opposition to be worthy of considering, or in more crude terms, it is considering Russia to be a second grade, or at best a regional power. This went on during the Presidency of Obama, till his second year…when even though there were talks of a renewed “reset”, the actions like Missile Defense in Europe almost reminded everyone of the unilateral nature of the previous administration. But, when it comes to blaming, it is seen Russia is still getting the lion’s share, not China, or BRICS as a whole but only Russia. This proves that the mindset of the policy makers in US is still very much rotating around Russia, even though they publicly might disagree or try to downplay. The walking out of Susan Rice after Russian Veto was a classic déjà vu of the days of Soviet – US rivalry. And it clearly shows, again in strictest term of real politics, that US still considers Russia as the only country, or power, debatably diminished in influence, but still the only country capable of packing a punch which will dismantle the carefully laid plans of influence in Middle East. So is everything wrong between Russia and US? That is also an absolute misconception. Both Vladimir Putin and Barak Obama are rational actors. They have impressive realist platform and understanding, and have unbelievable co-ordination when it comes to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

What is going wrong for Russia:

The fact that Russia is getting all the bad press is due to a notable flaw in modern Russian foreign policy. Russia is acting individually, allowing others to keep the guns on her shoulder, and hiding behind her as a shield. That is why all the criticism is automatically deflected to her. A modern realist trend in US foreign policy is President Obama’s policy of “leading from behind”. It is different from the aggressive neo-conservative hawkish warmongering, as well as the overtly humanitarian globalised liberal interventionist policy of the previous decade and a half. The current US administration mastered the art of doing, without showing…something which is repeatedly seen in the silent increase in Drone attacks without propagating ideology and freedom rhetoric. It was also seen during the Libya intervention, where it took the major load but from behind the coalition, with the public relations theatricals done by Messer’s Cameron and Sarkozy. In Yemen, a consented and peaceful regime change happened, without any significant publicity whatsoever, which is a miracle in this age of globalization. This maturity of United States foreign policy is a sea change after a decade and half of post Cold War international relations, a total 180 degree shift from the Iraq Mission Accomplished photo ops in 2003. Actually it is not much different though…just going back to the roots of Cold War…where both the superpowers used to play with other actors rather than direct and confrontational approach. Yes there were brinkmanship and occasional collision course…but if one thing the history of Cold War teaches us, it is objective and structural foreign policy is always a better way of dealing contentious and volatile issues.

This is where Russia is drawing flak. A specific example of this can be the China alliance. With all the hype of Russian version of “Asia Pivot” with President Putin’s visit to China…there has been a combined failure of the whole foreign policy establishment of the country to involve other actors in these global games. China, for all its glory, never vetoed alone…only followed Russia all the time. The official reaction of China regarding Asia Pivot of US, Indian missile tests, Philippine South China sea venture, and Vietnam – US rapprochement had been massively subdued. It didn’t act aggressively in international arena since 1979, never accepted South Ossetia or Abkhazia as independent states, even with much Russian coercion…and it was well expected that China will go back to its shell once the Syria situation unravels further after the veto. Nor could Russia actively engage Iran or other Middle Eastern states, or any countries for that matter, even its supposed allies from Latin America or Sanghai Co-operation Organisation to rally around the Syria situation. This failure to be the king maker, to have puppets dancing in its tune, to involve other actors, as well as non-state actors, combined with a terribly divided and bad PR at home, is what is costing Russia the name in the propaganda battle.

Before concluding, one thing should be made clear. International Relations of States and Great Powers are generally not guided by morality but by interests and strict realism, and at the end of the day there are no good or bad side, just power structures and actors which are winners and losers. And that is what defines the World around us. Assad is a despicable, vile man. There is no question about that. But he is just an actor in a much bigger game. Unfortunately this game is played with lives and people are dying because that. If Russia aspires for the glory days of the Great Power and Super power politics, which defined much of its history, she needs to look back at her foreign policy objectively, the way it was used during much of the post war 20th century. She needs to get to an agreement with her allies, channelize all the resources to contribute in stabilizing the situation. To get major powers other than Russia or West involved, would score a big difference for Russia as she might come out of the whole situation as a revered power broker, with the influence intact, or even increased. And most importantly get both sides to stop fighting, if needed with the threat of use of force, just in short of boots on ground, like the Suez Crisis of 1956. If Russia can successfully stop this bloodshed, involving its allies and other actors alongside an umbrella of force, it would have an immediate boost in the international prestige and power of Russia. If Putin stresses on the World being multipolar, he forgets the fact that the world is used to see America involve in problems, to solve or exacerbate is a matter of debate. If he genuinely wants to show Russia as one of the poles in the multi polar world, he needs to get involved and solve problem, rather than just using Vetoes and opposing. The identity of Russia these days is having a negative shade; with the only factor identifying it is an opposition to USA, rather than having a positive identity of her own, obviously in a multilateral sense with involvement from others powers. Nicolas Sarkozy brilliantly displayed that with his shuttle diplomacy during the 2008 South Ossetia War. But going solo just for the sake of it and colliding head on is bravado, not prudence or astute foreign policy. And in International Relations bravado can be fatal when it comes to good PR, goodwill, and good name. Russia shouldn’t forget that.

Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a Doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. He spends way too much time on Twitter, @MrMaitra

2 thoughts on “Syria Situation: What Russia Is Forgetting – OpEd

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    June 21, 2012 at 7:44 am
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    Just one note, the Syrian opposition aren’t limited to just wahhabis… Do some research on this and you will notice it’s not limited to wahhabis. Also maronites (in Syria I assue you meant) do not necessarily support Assad.

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  • Avatar
    June 24, 2012 at 6:16 am
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    In Latin America, the Assad government is generally seen as a protector of the Christians in Syria (10% of the population) – and many millions of Latin Americans are partially of Christian-Arab descend of the immigration from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine – 1880’s to 1920’s. This attidute is reflected in the position of some governments in Latin America, as well as in the media.

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