Thursday, March 29, 2012

Unanswered questions on Russia

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

With US Senator John McCain’s call for military intervention in Syria now a distant memory, Western diplomats have for weeks been pursuing a policy of engagement with Russia, the longtime ally of President Bashar al-Assad that has repeatedly blocked efforts to pressure his regime at the Security Council. That policy ostensibly bore fruit on Monday when President Barack Obama met with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, and announced that “we both agree that we should be supportive of [UN and Arab League special envoy] Kofi Annan’s efforts” to resolve the situation, referring to Annan’s six-point proposal. However, Medvedev’s remark on Tuesday that calls for Assad’s departure are “short-sighted” underscored the fundamental disagreement that remains between Russia and the US, which is officially committed to exactly that outcome. Evidently, diplomacy has not yet delivered its intended results.

And it remains far from clear how exactly diplomacy is expected to work in practical terms. Experts interviewed by NOW Lebanon were in agreement that governments opposed to Russia’s stance have little power to change it, neither by inducements nor pressure. On almost all fronts, they argued, Russia has the upper hand on its counterparts, both economically and politically.

For example, NOW asked Nicu Popescu, a Russia specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, whether EU countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, who are major customers of Russia’s vital oil and gas sector, could exert economic pressure on their business partner. On the contrary, Popescu said, “Germany is much more dependent on Russia than the reverse. I don’t think there is any way that any of the European states would pursue strategies of economic coercion with Russia. They have practically no leverage.”

The situation is much the same in Turkey, according to Oytun Orhan of the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM). “Turkey itself feels vulnerable to Russia on the economic front,” he told NOW. “In terms of natural gas, and in almost every other sector, Turkey depends heavily on Russia.”

For its part, the United States has already made economic concessions to Russia without yielding results, according to the Henry Jackson Society’s Middle East specialist Michael Weiss. “[US Ambassador to Russia] Michael McFaul announced that it is now Obama administration policy to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment [and thus] to allow Russia to join the World Trade Organization, with no preconditions,” he said. “I’m sure that McFaul conceived of this with the Syria situation in mind. And still there is no movement on Russia’s part.”

With such apparently dim prospects on the economic front, others have advocated targeting Russia’s strategic interests in Syria. For example, Tufts University professor of international politics and Foreign Policy columnist Daniel Drezner has argued that the focus ought to be on the sizeable Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus – the only one of its kind outside Russian waters. “What matters to Russia is preserving [the base]. So, one option is to suggest that Tartus [survive] a dramatic regime change. If [the main opposition grouping] the Syrian National Council were to make such a commitment to Moscow, it could leave Assad without his great power patron.”

Popescu agrees, suggesting that “guarantees that Russian interests, such as the naval base, would be taken into account” would “help Russia” to part with its Damascus client.

Weiss, however, told NOW that “when the SNC went to Moscow [in November 2011], they offered them the port of Tartus, and the Russians weren’t interested.” This, he says, was because “Russia’s relationship with Syria, unlike its relationship with Qaddafi’s Libya, is deeply entrenched at the ideological and military-industrial level. The Russians don’t want to see democracy in Syria, they certainly don’t want to see any kind of Islamist-dominated political system, and most importantly they don’t want to see the United States cultivate a relationship with Syria.”

Indeed, for this reason, Weiss rejects the very idea of negotiation with Russia on Syria, which he describes as a “deeply dangerous and deeply naïve, even fantastical” approach. “I take a very dim view of this notion that any kind of diplomatic resolution will pass through Moscow. Even assuming that they would repudiate Assad, which they have no intention of doing, you would still essentially be left with Assadism without Assad. The notion that [President-elect Vladimir] Putin would sell out the institutional fundamentals of the Syrian state – the mukhabarrat [intelligence apparatus], the corruption, the things that make Baathism tick – seems to me based on a fundamental misapprehension of the relationship.” Ultimately, to Weiss, there will be no end to the conflict “unless and until the Assad regime is removed by force. I really see no way around this at this point.”

While Orhan agrees that Russia “will try everything to block a regime change in Syria,” he believes that “the situation inside Syria will be the deciding factor. If the dynamism of the uprising remains, and the death toll increases as well as the number of refugees,” then it will become “much harder for Russia to maintain its illegitimate position. I think the Russians are worrying about this.” Popescu, too, told NOW that “there is a debate in Russia regarding the fact that most of the region is turning against them.”

Be that as it may, with the death toll now exceeding 9,000 according to UN estimates, the Syrian people may well ask exactly how many more must die before that “debate” is resolved.

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