TSG IntelBrief: A Diplomatic Solution in Syria: Understanding and Embracing Russia's Interests
As of early July 2012, President Bashar Al Assad has declared that Syria is at civil war. With each passing month, violence has become more sustained and continues to spread into communities across the country with a rising death toll as a result. As the Assad government seeks to retain power, the violence will certainly only increase in severity. Major international actors have shown little interest in undertaking yet another military or aerial campaign due to operational, strategic, and even economic concerns. Diplomacy thus seems the only viable option to prevent a further increase in deaths.
So far both the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League have tried unsuccessfully to end the conflict. This included two failed U.N. security resolutions on Syria — one in October 2011 and the other in February 2012 — and an ineffective ceasefire plan by U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, which broke down in April. On June 30th, the Geneva conference announced a new plan, which aims to create a temporary unity government before holding free elections.
Western diplomats hold the Chinese and Russians responsible for the lack of diplomatic progress. The United States and European Union argue that Russian self-interest in supporting the Assad government has prolonged the conflict. As the most recent example, at the aforementioned Geneva conference, Russian pressure ensured the wording of the proposed solution did not preclude Assad from participating in a future unity government. The Syrian opposition has rejected this outright and the diplomatic progress remains stalled.
Understanding Russia’s Syrian Strategy
During the course of the Arab Spring, Russia has consistently opposed regime change. One Russian policy expert argued this was in part due to underlying suspicion toward the West and the fear the Arab Spring had given rise to a model of Western-backed regime change. There is some logic to this interpretation: Western-supported interventions have changed governments in Libya and Iraq, while concerted diplomatic pressure helped establish a more pro-Western government in Yemen. Furthermore, U.N. Security Resolution 1973, which authorized the military intervention into Libya, established a precedent for humanitarian intervention to prevent human atrocities. The Kremlin is concerned that following the formation of a new government in Damascus, the next stop will be Tehran.
Despite its concerns about Western intentions, the Kremlin’s Syrian policy is broadly based on realpolitik: Russia has reportedly supplied Syria with an array of aircraft and air defense systems. The exact level of Russia’s economic interest in Syria varies depending on the source, but by all accounts it is a significant sum of money. According to recent media reports, arms contracts with Syria, including those under consideration, equate to approximately US$5 billion. And Russian commercial interests also extend to the infrastructure and energy sectors. Although Russia’s arms contracts with Syria are worth less than those with China, Egypt, and India, to name but a few, it remains an important trading partner.
Syria also offers strategic value in a region where Russia has few other trusted allies. Further, the partnership has a strong historical base. The former Soviet Union built a relationship with Syria, through Bashir’s father, Hafez Al Assad, who became an important Cold War ally. During the period since the Cold War, Russian officials have maintained strong ties with Syrian government, diplomatic and military personnel. Today, the strategic partnership is most visibly illustrated by the Tartus port in the west of Syria. According to a Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty report, Tartus is “Russia’s greatest strategic and geopolitical interest in Syria,” which it can use to dock nuclear submarines. While more reliable sources indicate that this report overplays the port’s size and capability, Tartus clearly offers Russia a foothold from where it can protect its interests across the Mediterranean.
Along with these geopolitical interests, Russia’s government fears the security ramifications of a potential Assad government collapse. On June 15th, Russia’s foreign minister wrote in the Western press that “Russia probably knows the true cost of revolutions better than most other countries,” and warned of the political, economic and social consequences that would likely ensue in the event of a regime change. In particular, the Russian government is concerned not only that Syria might become a hub for terrorist groups in general, but that it could specifically provide a training camp for Chechen terrorists. The comparable examples of the growth of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Libya and al-Qaeda in Iraq certainly indicate that a regime change could plausibly increase the terrorism threat in Syria.
Hedging Its Bets: An Evolving Russian Approach
As we forewarned in the July 3rd IntelBrief, Assad’s long-term survival is increasingly unlikely. Russia’s long-term strategic interests in Syria would certainly be at risk in the event that Assad is overthrown. At the same time, according to a recent Council for Foreign Relations report, Russia’s popularity across the Middle East has suffered because of its continued support for Assad. Seemingly in response to these realities, there are indications that Russia has deftly altered its Syrian policy. The recent Geneva Convention shows that the Kremlin supports a unity government, which is a more nuanced approach than previous proposals. There are further indications to suggest that its strategy may shift further: according to Russian media reports, over the coming weeks, senior politicians will hold talks in Moscow with two leaders of Syria’s opposition parties.
In light of the changing political and security realities in Syria, the long-term question seems increasingly likely to focus on who will be the next Syrian leader, and under what form of government. In an attempt to prevent the conflict from becoming even more deadly, Western diplomatic efforts should focus on harnessing Russia’s self-interest in Syria to help install a unity government. One way to build trust with Russia would be to focus less on regime change, and instead ensure that major government institutions remain in place and selected opposition figures are given substantial roles as part of a unity government. Doing so should also help avoid a repeat of the security vacuum created by the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, where extremist groups thrived and stability remains elusive.
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