Russia mediates between Syria and the West
On February 17-18 Sochi will play host to the third international conference of the Middle East section of the Valdai Discussion Club on the topic “Transformation in the Arab World and Russia`s interests.” Valdaiclub.com asked Middle East expert Alexander Aksenenok, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, and Advisor to the Chairman and Managing Director of Vnesheconombank (VEB), to share his views on current events in Syria and Russia’s role in preventing a repeat of the Libyan scenario.
What can you say about what’s happening in Syria?
Tensions in Syria have entered a new stage. Violence and armed clashes are escalating, and opposition forces are also responsible for this. The number of victims is growing not only among civilians but also in the Syrian military and security forces. It’s no exaggeration to say that Syria is gradually militarizing its domestic conflict and descending into large-scale civil war.
The opposition’s democratic demands are long overdue and fully justified. The triad of Baathist ideology – unity, freedom and socialism – has lost its appeal in the Arab world, while the socio-political factors that led to the Arab revolutions also exist in Syria to some extent. Having embarked on economic liberalization, the old guard of the Baath party has delayed political reform, fearing that it could spin out of control. Now they have to do it under enormous domestic and foreign pressure.
On the other hand, it is also clear that armed rebels have turned legal peaceful protests into cover for violent action. No government in any country would tolerate this. This has become particularly clear after the emergence of the Free Syrian Army and armed opposition groups supported by neighboring countries with weapons and money.
What threat does the escalation in Syria pose to Russia’s domestic and foreign policy?
Russia’s position is often explained by fear of losing its “last ally” in the Middle East or by a desire take revenge on the West for using Security Council Resolution 1973 to justify its intervention in Libya. But both explanations are simplistic.
Yes, Russian companies have economic interests in Syria and Russia has long-standing military-technical cooperation with that country. The Syrians are punctually paying their debt to Russia. Russia is building relations with Syria on the basis of mutual benefit, as it does with the majority of Arab states, including those that have changed their regimes. It would be a big exaggeration to claim that Syria is Russia’s strategic ally. Syria has always had its own foreign policy interests and calculations.
I think there is a more important point. The Russian position is based on expert assessments of the dangerous consequences of a further escalation of the armed confrontation in Syria. Considering its special geopolitical location in the region and fragile interreligious balance, if Syria does not begin a national dialogue without foreign interference, these consequences will affect the interests of all countries – Russia, Europe, the United States and Arab states. The conflict in Syria is increasingly acquiring religious overtones. There is a risk of it spilling into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, and perhaps further southward. In this case the worst-case scenario may come to pass – the world community will have to deal with a broader inter-Muslim conflict if not a collision between civilizations. Syria’s numerous Christian communities traditionally supported the more secular Alawi minority and are justifiably concerned over the possible spread of Salafi Islam in Syria.
What do you think about Russia’s measures to stabilize the situation in Syria?
In its multilateral contacts on the Syrian crisis Russian diplomats are doing all they can to persuade its American, European and Arab partners of the need to convince the opposing sides in Syria to enter into dialogue instead of demonizing the Syrian regime and encouraging the opposition to be uncompromising. If such a balanced approach had prevailed in Libya, the orderly process of democratic transformation might have been launched there instead of the current chaos and clashes among the victors.
For its part, Russia maintains constant contact with both the Syrian authorities and the opposition. It submitted to the Security Council a draft resolution reflecting, among other things, the Arab League platform. This move was followed by Moscow’s appeal to the Syrian government and all opposition groups to send their representatives to Moscow for informal contacts without any preconditions. The Syrian government has accepted this proposal whereas the opposition continues to stubbornly insist on preconditions that must be part of any inter-Syrian dialogue on the substance, pace and terms of the urgently needed reforms.
The Arab and Western backers of the recent resolution in the Security Council are putting the cart before the horse. This is calling into question the sincerity of their intentions to achieve a rapid political settlement of the conflict. The goals of such unilateral approaches are not quite clear. If this is part of a broader anti-Iranian strategy, this game could pose unprecedented risks to the entire Middle East.
What additional measures should Russia take to prevent a repeat of the Libyan scenario in Syria?
It goes without saying that no matter what moves Russian diplomats might make, Russia does not have enough influence to stop the escalation of violence in Syria. This goal can only be achieved by joint coordinated efforts. Russia is ready to cooperate in good faith with all regional and outside players provided Syria’s sovereignty is respected. If a constructive approach to achieving inter-Syrian dialogue prevails, Russia could help create an atmosphere of trust between its participants.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.