Russia’s Evolving Stance on Syria

by Mikhail Troitskiy, Adjunct Professor, MGIMO University.

The Geneva meeting of the UN-backed Action Group on Syria and its June 30th Final Communiqué may have narrowed the gap between opposing views of the role external powers should play in the conflict. But the participants fell short of laying out a coherent and credible vision for a post-conflict Syria. The second plan proposed to the Syrian government and opposition by Special UN Envoy Kofi Annan failed to impress either side. At the current level of controversy, neither side is prepared to join its mortal enemies in government so long as it is anything but clear how and where such a government could in fact operate.

The liberal internationalist public cannot wash its hands and watch from a distance as a civil war yields daily reports of mass casualties anywhere in the world. Yet the consequences of intervention in the Syrian conflict—both for Syria and the intervening parties—are unpredictable. It is impossible to guarantee against mission creep should intervention begin in any form, including by those considered fully impartial. Any peacekeeping mission will inevitably face armed attacks, presenting its commanders with a stark choice: escalate violence by responding to the attackers, or withdraw.

Many regional and international observers predict that the human cost of direct intervention in a society so rife with division is likely to be higher than that of inaction or (predictably ineffective) attempts at mediation. This calculus, however, is not enough to explain the current Russian stance on events in Syria.

Apart from Russia’s material interests, discussed at length elsewhere, observers usually point towards two additional likely drivers of Moscow’s approach. First, externally orchestrated regime change has been a major source of concern to the Russian authorities since the wave of “color” revolutions swept across post-Soviet Eurasia almost a decade ago. These fears were reinforced by the Arab Spring events, inspiring the term “Libyan scenario”—an armed intervention undertaken to end violence within a country but ultimately leading to the overthrow of that country’s regime. Not allowing the Libyan scenario to be realized in Syria has become a mantra among many Russian public officials and commentators, who usually stop short of deconstructing the term and assessing its real applicability to the Syrian situation.

Second, influential Russian foreign policy makers are openly doubtful of the possibility of achieving win-win outcomes in relations with the United States. Conventional wisdom has it that “horse trading” and sustainable “deals” are impossible with the United States: Washington does not seek compromise when pursuing its goals. Moreover, concern about the risks of foreign intervention in Russia’s domestic affairs plays an important role on the political agenda of pro-government forces in Russia. Moscow cannot afford to give even the impression it is helping the United States put pressure on the leader of another sovereign state.

Were Moscow to welcome a certain diversion of U.S. attention and resources to Syria, Russia’s assessment of the consequences of external intervention would likely be based on multiple considerations. Factors determining this assessment come from various interest groups inside Russia whose gains or losses may differ. On the one hand, an escalation could reveal the limits of NATO cohesion or the extent of Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions. On the other hand, a full-fledged intervention and war in Syria (to say nothing of Iran) might radicalize Muslims across the Middle East, with negative implications for Russia’s own North Caucasus. Syria and its close ally Iran may also prove far less capable of sustained resistance to the intervening powers than initially thought. Should the incumbent governments in Damascus and Tehran suffer military defeat, Russian positions in the region may be weakened—for example, by the opening of new transit routes for Central Asian hydrocarbons through Iran.

Russia so far has firmly resisted pressuring the Syrian authorities. Still, the Russian position has shifted: from open support for President Assad, to emphatic impartiality, to acknowledgement of Russia’s lack of leverage over Syrian authorities. As many analysts have suggested, Russia’s ability to convince Assad may indeed be as limited as Moscow likes to present.

By signing off on the second Annan plan, Moscow is signaling to Assad that Russia will only go so far to prevent an outside intervention—with or without a UN mandate. However, Russia will not be able to reverse the interventionist dynamic should the Gulf countries, Turkey, or NATO as a whole decide to use force—for example, in order to establish “safe zones” on the border with Syria.

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