Russia reestablishes influence in Middle East?
The level of violence in Syria is still high, with continued hostilities culminating in several powerful explosions recently. However, the armed opposition is in no hurry to engage in dialogue with the government, although President Bashar al-Assad has offered to negotiate with their leaders. There are many factors hampering dialogue, such as the ongoing hostilities on both sides, and Assad’s delay in implementing the Syrian reform program, which is one of the reasons Russia is disappointed with the Syrian regime. However, the majority of the blame for the escalating tensions in the country is still borne by the armed opposition forces, which refuse to engage in a national dialogue aimed at achieving a peace settlement. At the same time, this is obviously necessary because Assad has enough resources to remain in control.
There are two main reasons why the current regime is capable of staying in control: it is supported in the two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, and by the majority of the national armed forces that remain loyal to Assad. The second reason is even more important, since none of the army units has gone over to the opposition. This is remarkable because, in many similar conflicts, it has been common for whole units to desert. In Syria, although there have been individual cases of desertion, the army has remained loyal to the government, which is a powerful source of support.
Local ethnic and religious minorities have also remained loyal to Assad on the whole – Alawis, naturally, but also Christians, Druzes and Kurds who have split, but most of them are reluctant to join the opposition.
Another important feature of the Syrian conflict is the government’s decision not to use heavy artillery or aviation against its opponents. By refraining from using aircraft, the government subtly brushed aside the possibility of introducing a no-fly zone. The violent crackdown on the opposition only involves ground forces.
Since outside forces are not calling for an armed intervention, Russia and China’s insistence on peaceful reconciliation as an alternative to fighting or regime change is especially important. The Syrian National Council seeks the end of Assad's rule, as do some other countries such as Qatar. At the same time, most neighboring states are not ready for military intervention. Turkey is even more reluctant to join because the Alawi minority in that country, some 10 million people, will not support any action against Assad. Moreover, Turkey’s Republican People's Party, a large opposition party, does not support the country’s harsh anti-Assad policy aimed at regime change.
Russia’s stance on Syria is clear and cogent. As Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rightly noted, we are not defending Assad or his family or his clan or even his regime, which certainly needs to be reformed. Rather we are defending a philosophy of international relations and the Syrian people’s right to solve their own problems. Russia is ready to mediate the peace process. We support national dialogue and a diplomatic solution.
Russia is firmly against suppressing the protests with sanctions and is certainly opposed to any military intervention, which could turn the simmering civil war in Syria into a fully fledged conflict. Insisting on the overthrow of the country’s president is certainly not a constructive way to promote dialogue between the government and the opposition. The world is full of rulers, legitimate or otherwise, who are disliked by other countries, and it is not for the international community to decide which of them should keep their posts and which should go. Therefore, the best course is to stick to a policy based on inalienable international principles such as the rule of law, non-interference in a country’s internal affairs, respect for sovereignty and people’s right to address their own problems with the help of the international community.
There is clearly a conflict in modern international law between respect of sovereignty and what is known as the UN’s “responsibility to protect.” This principle includes protecting civilians, human rights and so on. However, the procedures for exercising it need to be seriously revised and they certainly require general agreement. But today there is no consensus even between Arab states. Russia has coordinated positions with the Arab League and supports its anti-crisis policies.
At this stage, Russia is taking a very active position. It is determined to achieve some rapprochement with the Arab League as well as with the West, especially considering the recent improvements in U.S. policy – a country that does not seem too eager to interfere. In fact some European leaders demonstrate more extremist views on the Syrian crisis than even the U.S. government. In my opinion, this gives Russia a good opportunity to bolster its reputation as an even more influential player in the Middle East, something it has been lacking in recent years. Despite the difficulties and criticisms this policy has given rise to, Russia’s active policy in the region proves that without its involvement, it is virtually impossible to settle a major regional crisis like the one in Syria.
Vitaly Naumkin is Director for the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.