By Habibe Ozdal
Conflicts between the Assad regime and dissidents in Syria have continued. On the one hand, dark clouds have not seemed to dissipate in the short term; on the other hand, the methods of the Assad regime based on the use of force to suppress public revolts have been increasing the fragility of the regime. At this point, predictability in the context of the future of Damascus seems limited whereas other expectations seem to be possible. Moreover while Russia constituting the most powerful opposition to the Western countries’ proposal of ‘international intervention’ has negotiated with opponents in Syria; also has anchored its warships to waters off the port of Tartus in Syria. In the context of internal political development in Syria, if the direction of the wind changes, the rebuilding of Moscow’s policies is inevitable. It is unpredictable whether or not the choices of Moscow that appear pragmatic will bring the desired outcomes in the long term as they were originally considered for the short term.
In response to the harsh intervention of the Assad regime against the public riots when it heard the increasing response of the international community and international intervention option, the fundamental basis of Moscow acrimoniously opposes the results of Libyan operations carried out by NATO. In this respect, Moscow said that it has digressed to the creation of a no-fly zone as a result of the NATO operation in Libya. The platform of Moscow’s prevention of sanctions against the Damascus regime and international intervention has continued to be the U.N. Security Council.
Due to the presence of problems in Russia’s own internal political structure, its assessment of public revolts as an issue of ‘domestic policy’ has been found consistent. While the dictators have been overpowered in the Middle East, the lifetime of support given to the Assad regime has been questioned. Moreover, it seemed to be inevitable that in the event of change in favor of the dissidents, Russia could have a change of attitude in the ongoing clashes between dissidents and the government. At this point, last week, Moscow took a significant step by meeting with dissidents in Syria. However, in the meeting, Moscow’s attempts to look for a way for the continuation of the regime rather than to support to the dissident’s priority condition, i.e. the overthrow of the Assad regime, did not meet expectations.
On the 15th of November, the statements of Lavrov, who met with the President of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, can be qualified as a confirmation of Russia’s well-known stance.Yet, in this meeting, Lavrov expressed that the Assad regime and dissidents should immediately terminate the crises between each other through diplomatic negotiations. However, Lavrov obviously made it clear that Moscow does not support the dissidents’ ‘sine qua non’ demand of overthrow of the Assad regime. In this context, whereas Russia has been pushing for a solution through diplomatic negotiations, it has continued to show the Assad regime as a legitimate government. After the meeting, there was a noticeable issue in Ghalioun’s statements. The dissident leader, in the case of the dissidents coming to power in Syria, specified that Russia’s benefit will be looked after, which seemed to respond the Moscow’s main concern. In as much as it should be taken into account that during this period in which everything has changed in a very short period of time, these evaluations could be left unsupported or unproved.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s meeting with Syrian dissidents can also be interpreted as another application of Russia’s ‘mediation’ role in the Middle East. Moscow had attempted a ‘mediation’ role in the resolution of problems between Syria and Israel and Palestine and Israel by inviting Hamas to Moscow. So accepting Syrian dissidents in Moscow last week as interlocutors and holding talks for a peaceful resolution of conflicts in Syria may be seen as a similar initiative of the Kremlin.
Finally, on November 22, Moscow sent three Russian warships to Syria. According to information provided by news agencies, three warships in the Mediterranean ready against Somali pirates had anchored near the port of Tartus. This latest development was assessed on the one hand as “the Assad administration opening its territorial waters to Russia, which has been its largest arms supplier, to prevent a possible foreign intervention” and on the other hand in widely used rhetoric that “Russia aimed to send a message to ‘international intervention in Syria” discussions expressed by the Western world. In fact, the message from the warships is clear since we know that Moscow will not support any Western intervention. However, the recent development once again showed a notable lack of the elements of soft power in the Russian foreign policy in particular, especially in the Middle East. With a more open expression, Moscow, having troubles deciding by which tools and through which channelsto carry out policies in the region especially after popular revolts, chose to determine its position in international relations independently from the West (even against West) as a way of overcoming its troubles. However, Moscow’s foreign policy practices rely on hard power elements especially when intended to announce the sound louder against the West. For example in September, during exploratory drillings in the Mediterranean, Russia had declared that it would send the Northern Fleet led by Russia’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean in November. The application of a foreign policy by consistently reminding of your military presence may be helpful for short-term deterrence, but in the long run it may lose credibility. Moreover, proposing that the Russian warships anchored near the port of Tartus can be used in an unwavering manner is not very realistic. With the symbolic meaning the warships have, the possibility of using them actively is not high.
Consequently, the developments in Syria are significant not only for the Middle East and in terms of the dynamics of the region, but they also create a floor for the struggle of global powers in the international arena. Even with tactical choices such as holding interviews with dissidents, the purpose is still to prevent intervention. On the one hand, Russia is trying to keep open channels of dialogue by meeting with dissidents but on the other hand, by directing warships to Syria, it is sending nostalgic messages to Western actors in order to be taken more seriously.
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies
*Translated by Ozge Taylan and Nihal Cizmecioglu.