Russia's bear's grip falters
We should all be able to agree on a fact: Despite the growing international indignation toward it, Russia’s position on Syria has remained remarkably consistent throughout the crisis there. By blocking passage of any resolution at the UN Security Council, Russia has gained both an international visibility and influence that go far beyond its means. And it is precisely this on which the Kremlin seeks to capitalize.
Russia has always sought to maintain a “two-headed eagle” position on Syria, behaving both as a part-time broker and as a suspicious spoiler. This has an obvious psychological − ideological? − dimension: Russian elites are obsessed with displaying their country’s power to the Americans. It is essential for Moscow to establish the appearance of parity with Washington; Russia is thought to be powerful only if the United States perceives Moscow as such. That is why the Kremlin has little interest in achieving any diplomatic solution in Syria, with or without President Bashar Assad. For Moscow, the only tenable position is to preserve the status quo,thus tolerating ongoing violence while allowing Russia to leave other countries with the responsibility for taking risks − or not.
Two assessments can be made of Russia’s Syrian policy. First, the West overestimated Moscow’s leverage over the Syrian regime. Russia has not managed so far to weigh in decisively on the rebellion; what is clear is that it does not want Damascus to fall into the hands of the Syrian National Council. That, for Russian leaders, would be tantamount to coming under the influence of Turkey, or the Muslim Brotherhood and their sponsors in the Gulf monarchies. Likewise, Russia’s material interests in Syria are real, though limited. Bilateral interests are supported by personal ties between Russian military officers and arms traders, on the one hand, and diplomats and senior officials from the Baathist regime, on the other.
Second, it shows how shortsighted Moscow’s policy is in a region it has actively sought to return to for the past decade. In other words, Russia’s support to Assad may have a broader and more serious impact on Moscow’s relations with the West and the Arab Gulf monarchies than it does on Syria itself. Anti-Russian feelings are already palpable in some Middle Eastern capitals, including Cairo, Tripoli and Ankara. Further tensions between Russia and the Muslim world, including within Russian society and its Muslim minority, might also be expected. But more essentially, since mass protests this past winter in the biggest Russian cities, President Vladimir Putin’s regime is no longer seen as almighty at home. The country’s foreign policy is therefore more vulnerable and more subject to criticism among the political elites and the media. The Kremlin’s position no longer enjoys the support of a firm consensus within the elites, who are now exposed to the opinions expressed within the nascent protest movements and on the Internet. In today’s Russia, domestic and external affairs are inextricably intertwined.
More fundamentally, the Syrian crisis has shed a harsh light on how Russian elites have trouble conceiving of the Arab world. The Russians have subscribed to an idealized “parallel reality” in their perception of the Syrian regime. Moscow has undoubtedly proved somewhat naive toward Syria: Russian representatives feel they understand the Syrian political elites they interact with, whereas they do not comprehend the Syrian “deep state,” with which they have contact only through a complex system of intermediaries. Very few Russian leaders actually monitor what is happening in Syria; they mostly rely on a classic situation of ignorance among their public: no parliamentary debates, few enlightened criticisms in the media, and a lack of independent expertise on Arab countries.
The latter point helps us to understand why the Russians failed in understanding Syria and, in a larger sense, the Middle East in its entire complexity. The Kremlin seems to be content believing the idea that recent developments in the region are the result of plots hatched overseas rather than a direct consequence of the toppled regimes’ mass corruption and brutality.
Russian leaders and experts are persuaded that Middle Eastern societies are anti-American. They have always understood the Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian regimes as bulwarks against terrorism − bulwarks that the U.S., in its zeal to spread democracy, would have heedlessly destroyed. When the Russians conceive of the Middle East, they first think about Central Asia, the Caucasus and Islamism. In other words, Russia must move beyond the influence of Orientalist and former foreign and prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, and begin to consider the multiplicity of the current political and social processes in the Middle East while avoiding sweeping geopolitical considerations.
A month ago, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, at a joint press conference with his British counterpart, William Hague, said, regarding the possibility of a settlement in Syria: “This seems less like a tango and more like a disco where several dozens are taking part ...” While relentlessly viewing its Syrian − and Middle Eastern – initiatives mainly in the light of its policy toward Washington, Russia looks increasingly unlikely to be part of a future post-Assad “dance” in the Middle East.
Julien Nocetti is Julien Nocetti is a Research Associate at the Paris-based think tank French Institute for International Relations (IFRI ).
This article was originally published on www.haaretz.com