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Can Russia Help to End the Crisis in Syria?

Tags: Middle East , Obama , Russia , Putin , Terrorism

Saunders, Paul J.

June 07, 2012

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The United States and Europe have increasingly focused on Moscow in their efforts to stop ongoing violence in Syria. Yet, increased public pressure on Russian officials by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others does not appear to have altered Russia’s position, and a negotiated solution still seems like a distant possibility.

This raises two important questions: Why are Western leaders giving so much attention to Russia, and can they succeed in obtaining the Kremlin’s support for a workable solution to the Syrian crisis?

The answer to the first question is relatively simple: US and European officials have concentrated on Moscow because many believe that Russia can persuade Syrian leaders to accept a deal—and because they have no other real options.

Contrary to what some outside the United States may believe, few in America support US military intervention in Syria; in fact, a March poll by Fox News showed 78% opposed sending troops. Even leading US hawks like Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have called instead for arming the Syrian rebels, which some believe is already happening.

Unfortunately, while providing weapons to the opposition may help the rebels to defend themselves, it is less obvious that it will slow or stop the killing in the country. Conversely, many fear that it could actually contribute to a full-scale civil war. It could also mean arming extremists who would turn on the United States and its allies if they succeed in removing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Similarly, economic sanctions appear unlikely to change the Syrian government’s conduct in the foreseeable future. Practically speaking, how much impact can sanctions have on leaders and elites who believe that the future of their regime and even their personal survival may be at stake? It will take time to find out, and the fighting in Syria will continue all the while.

The second question—whether Western leaders can work with Russia to end the fighting in Syria—is considerably more complex. In practice, there are two components to the problem: securing Moscow’s cooperation and then using Russia’s influence in Syria to persuade Mr. Assad.

Thus far, Russia’s officials have supported the “Annan Plan,” a six-point agreement proposed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—now a UN special envoy—calling for an end to violence and a Syrian-led reform process.

While US officials appear to be seeking Russian assistance in dealing with the Syrian uprising, the Obama administration’s current approach seems unlikely to succeed. One key obstacle is the fact that the West and Russia have a different understanding of what is happening in Syria and how best to stop it.

Where US and European leaders see a brutal regime ruthlessly suppressing political opposition, Russian officials see a flawed but tolerable government lashing out at opposition groups armed, funded, and encouraged by outsiders including not only the West but also Saudi Arabia—which Russia suspects of supporting terrorism across the Middle East, the Caucasus, and South Asia—and non-state extremist Islamists.

American officials are thus determined to remove Assad from power as quickly as possible, arguing that this will end the violence, while their Russian counterparts fear what Syria’s sudden collapse might unleash.

Significant as these differences are, however, diplomats could in theory find a middle ground acceptable to the United States, key European governments, and Russia, particularly as Moscow appears increasingly frustrated with Assad’s conduct, as evident in recent comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

This would require a modified version of the Annan Plan, creating conditions for Assad’s gradual exit in a defined time frame. Russia would likely agree to this; Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov has recently stated, "We never said or made a condition that Assad must necessarily remain in power at the end of the political process.”

Washington should want a gradual process anyway to avoid a repeating the instability in Iraq, where tearing apart the government and the military led to years of bloody conflict. And if America could win Russian support for such a plan, China would likely go along.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not developed a coherent and credible strategy to bring Moscow on board. If Syria is truly a major American foreign policy priority, having a coherent strategy means subordinating other concerns—at least temporarily. The decision to send Secretary of State Clinton to Georgia, where she publicly reiterated US opposition to Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in early June, is one example of the administration’s undisciplined approach.

Taking into account that nothing the secretary of state says about Georgia will make any difference on the ground, why was this pro forma comment necessary now? More generally, attempts by Secretary Clinton and America’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice to pressure Russia’s leaders with tough statements are unlikely to persuade Vladimir Putin, who has been unmoved by much stronger rhetoric on other issues in the past. Language like this just irritates Putin without accomplishing anything.

Even if the United States, Europe, and Russia agree on a plan, however, the Kremlin won’t support threats of military action or harsh sanctions to compel Assad’s compliance with it. With this in mind, how much influence does Moscow really have in Damascus? One thing is nearly certain: Russia will not be able to persuade Syria’s entire ruling elite to surrender power—the stakes for them are too high.

More generally, while Russia is Syria’s top arms supplier, it is far down the list of Syria’s trade partners, behind the European Union, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and China, among others. Thus Russia’s leverage would likely be employed most effectively in explaining to top Syrian military leaders and to others in the elite the costs and uncertain endpoint of their continued support for Assad and, conversely, their ability to retain an important role if they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Unfortunately for everyone, the longer the fighting goes on, the harder it will be to reach this kind of arrangement. Both Western governments and the Syrian opposition will be less and less likely to accept the elements of continuity that a solution like this would require. Yet absent that, it is hard to see a negotiated end to the fighting. Instead, Syrians would be locked in an escalating civil war, with Western powers and some Arab states supporting the opposition but unwilling to intervene directly and decisively. This would push the country toward a slow and relentless conflict, a terrible outcome for the Syrian people and for almost everyone else as well.

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