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Russia’s Position on Civil War in Syria: Any chance for cooperation with the West?

November 20, 2012 - Andrzej Turkowski - Bez kategorii

After talks with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius in Paris on October 31st, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again opposed the departure of President Bashar al-Assad as well as external military intervention in Syria. Russia is holding its ground that in view of the growing conflict in Syria, the most important task of the international community is to encourage both sides of the civil war to stop fighting, and that the political future of Syria should be decided in the framework of the peace negotiations. Thus, Russian authorities oppose supporting the opposition, for example, through military assistance or external military actions. They believe the decisions of the action group on Syria, which includes permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as some countries from the Middle East region, should be adopted as the base for the international community’s action. During the meeting of the group which took place in Geneva on June 30th 2012, rules of the political settlement of the conflict were set, providing participation in the transformation process of both the opposition and the current authorities. Additionally, the Russian authorities have repeatedly declared support for UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, including his proposal of truce during Eid al-Adha holiday, and the return of UN observers' mission to Syria.

The geopolitical importance of the Syrian conflict

Russia’s position on the events in Syria should be seen in broader context of the dispute with United States and other European countries over the issue of acceptability of interventions into internal conflicts and externally supported regime change. Its previous editions concerned NATO and American military intervention in Yugoslavia and Iraq, which Russia also opposed. Russia’s stance on the conflict in Syria is additionally reinforced by experience from Libya, where, in Russia’s opinion, NATO military intervention was an abuse of the mandate set by UN Security Council resolution (Russia and China abstained from voting).

Russia’s opposition to external intervention or assistance to opposition in the case of Syria is in line with its strive to protect Russian interests in the Middle East. The fall of the regime of President al-Assad, which is supported by Moscow, would mean loss of influence for Russia in Syria in favour of countries assisting the opposition in the country. Moreover, Russia perceives the civil war in Syria as an outcome of regional rivalry between the closest ally of al-Assad’s regime – Iran, and Arab countries (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) backed by Turkey. It views the support for the opposition as being aimed at weakening Iran’s position, which is linked to Russia by shared opposition to US domination in the region.

Furthermore, Russia is afraid of the rise of groups of fundamentalist, which may benefit from the deepening of chaos in the region after the fall of the Syrian regime. The Russian authorities believe that assistance to rebel groups offered by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, for example, favours groups of Islamic fundamentalists, whose representatives are among the Syrian opposition. The Russian state authorities as well as the Russian Orthodox Church stress the danger posed to the Christian minority in Syria, which is associated with al-Assad’s regime. The change of authorities may also bring the necessity for repatriation of the Circassian population (which also live on territory in Russian North Caucasus), whose members constitute a national minority of many thousands in Syria. It is worth noting that the Russian authorities have so far not responded to the call from Circassians willing to leave Syria, which has already stirred protests in Russia.

Economic and military interests are not all that crucial

Russia’s economic and military interests in Syria don't play such a significant role in shaping Moscow’s position as is sometimes presented in media. In 2010 Syria ranked 27 on the list of Russia’s export recipients with other states from the region – Iran, Egypt, Israel and Algeria ranking higher. In 2011 Syria received about 5 per cent of the value of the entire arms export from Russia. Although the Russian military complex may be anxious about the future of signed contracts, the cases of Libya and Iraq show that even the seizure of power by the opposition wouldn't necessarily bring a loss of arms contracts. Arm deals signed in 2012 with Iraq worth 4.2 billion dollars, as well as declarations from representatives of the arms industry about the possible resumption of cooperation with the new Libyan government prove this.

Similarly, the importance of the Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus seems to be significantly overestimated. Despite announcements from the media and Russian authorities, there hasn't been any serious renovation of the base nor development of port infrastructure until now. This situation has been caused by the vast financial needs of the Russian military forces which require overall reform, as well as the lack of possibility and necessity of permanent stationing of stronger forces of the Russian navy in Mediterranean. The base lacks permanent repair infrastructure, and communication and command system. It now mainly serves as a water, food and fuel supply facility.

Ways of engaging Russia

Taking into account experiences from Libya and the way of perceiving the Syrian conflict, it seems unlikely that the Russian authorities will agree to support opposition forces aimed at overthrowing the current regime. It is feasible, however, to engage Russia in cooperation with the US and members of the European Union on issues constituting common security risks. The US and the EU should thus seek to cooperate with Russia through an exchange of information aimed at the identification and isolation of radicals among the opposition, or at securing Christian and other minorities in Syria. The next step for the US and the EU should be to support Lakhdar Brahimi in his strive to stop the fighting, and then to authorise the redeployment of the UN Security Council mission of observers, which monitor the observance of the truce.

In order to gain deeper engagement with Russia, the US and its European allies would have to support a return to peace negotiations based on the Geneva communiqué, with participation of representatives of both the current Syrian authorities and the moderate opposition. In such a case, Russia is likely to try to ensure a leading role for itself in the peace process, for example by organising an international conference in Moscow (such a proposal has been already proposed by Russia). It will strive to secure the broadest possible participation in the new government of representatives of the current regime, as well as to obtain guarantees that the future government will honour contracts signed with Russia by the al-Assad regime. Although the authorities in Moscow have repeatedly stressed that they would not grant asylum to President al-Assad, in case of reaching an agreement by opposition forces and representatives of the current authorities on the condition of al-Assad’s resignation from power, Russia may change its mind or try to convince one of countries in post-Soviet space to host the Syrian leader.

It is in Polish interests to secure the fastest possible settlement of the civil war in Syria reached through political negotiations of the major Syrian political forces. It seems that in the current situation, the most favourable way of reaching this aim is through conflict settlement based on the Geneva communiqué. The Polish authorities may thus use their capabilities for consultations in frame of the Weimar Triangle (Poland, Germany, France) or the Kaliningrad Triangle (Poland, Germany, Russia) aimed at reaching an agreement between Russia and its transatlantic partners. During the peace negotiations, Poland, on behalf of the EU may also support the process of power transition through sharing its own experiences of political transformation.

Andrzej Turkowski is an analyst covering Russia’s foreign policy, a Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) research associate, and PhD candidate at the University of Warsaw.

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