Russia’s Syria policy gains traction

Author Vitaly Naumkin Posted February 9, 2014 – AL MONITOR

In advance of the second round of the Geneva II talks, Russian diplomacy was in high gear and not limited to official contacts with Damascus. Indeed, a delegation from the Syrian National Coalition, led by Ahmad Jarba, arrived in Moscow on Feb. 4. At least the parties “started to understand each other better,” but serious disagreements remain.

Moscow would like to see a more representative opposition delegation at the negotiations, including, among others, Kurds and the National Coordination Committee for Democrat Change, an internal political opposition grouping that was not part of the opposition Geneva delegation. But after his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Jarba emphasized that the National Coalition is opposed to expanding the delegation to include the “pocket opposition” — and who is that? The National Coalition wants very much to reach an agreement as quickly as possible on the formation of a transitional authority. Moscow underscores that only the parties in the conflict can do this, and that this will be the result of lengthy and painstaking work. Moscow, citing the agreements at the G-8 meeting in Lough Erne, is focusing special attention on fighting terrorism, but as I heard from opposition representatives, they do not want to “turn Geneva II into an anti-terrorism forum.” Notably, in a Feb. 4 interview with RIA Novosti, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov even named the countries that are the “biggest mercenary recruiting centers” — France, Germany, Great Britain and Belgium — while there are mercenaries from Russia as well.

Russian analysts are trying to figure out whether Saudi Arabia enacting a new counterterrorism law means it is reconsidering its policy of supporting radical Islamist groups in Syria (and not only in Syria) or, rather, whether this law is intended to strike a blow against those who oppose Saudi foreign policy. The legal definition of terrorism itself leads many observers to believe the intent is to suppress the opposition, because the law defines terrorism as a criminal act that destabilizes the security of the society or the stability of the state. This definition is broad enough to be deployed in any direction.

An observer for the semi-official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, however, seems to believe Riyadh really does want to make a change: “Clearly, the authorities in Saudi Arabia are tired of hearing more and more, lately, that their country is the main sponsor of terrorists and extremists throughout the Middle East.” I would note that not everyone in Russia shares these accusations against the kingdom, and moreover, the kingdom is seen as a partner in counteracting terrorism. So, can we assume Riyadh will cut off the channels for financing the insurgents? This remains an open question, but much will depend on whether the sponsors of the intra-Syrian peace negotiations are able to expand the peace process to include the regional actors: Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

With regard to several problems for which the Western and regional powers condemn Damascus exclusively, Russia prefers to take a more balanced position, placing a large share of the blame on the insurgents. For example, the opposition refuses to give the government a list of its prisoners, and the rebels blockade Shiite enclaves, use noncombatants as human shields and frequently disrupt deliveries of humanitarian shipments. At the same time, Moscow notes that it is actively working with Damascus to resolve the problem of access for humanitarian shipments. It still has not been possible to implement the agreement reached on humanitarian assistance to the residents of Homs. From representatives of the official authorities in Syria, we heard the argument that food and medications could fall into the hands of the rebels, who will then kill even more supporters of the regime, including noncombatants. So, the regime offers its solutions, such as evacuating residents or removing groups of rebels from the city.

We know that Russia is actively seeking a compromise, but Moscow’s ability to influence Damascus is probably not as great as some of Russia’s partners believe. Incidentally, the same could be said of Washington’s ability to influence the opposition. The recent announcement that the Syrian authorities had decided to call a three-day cease-fire and open humanitarian corridors was a step in the right direction.

Despite the supposed consensus that no side will be able to achieve a military victory in the conflict, as we approach the second round of the negotiations each side continues to assert it is in full control of the situation on the battlefield, and is just about to establish control over most of the territory in the country. But if that is so, why negotiate?

Incidentally, the fact that the Syrian army and security forces have shown surprising cohesion and only isolated individuals have deserted so far, with no instances of entire units going over to the rebel side, is seen in Russia as evidence of the strength of the regime’s position. At the same time, certain cases of desertion make us stop and think. Muhammed Faris, the only Syrian cosmonaut and one of very few foreigners to receive the highest Soviet award, Hero of the Soviet Union — a title that had not been bestowed on anyone in the Arab world since Nikita Khrushchev awarded it to Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ben Bella — has joined the insurgents and is now a commander in the Free Syrian Army.

Officially Moscow is clearly pleased that the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons is showing progress. Although this process is not connected in any way with the intra-Syrian negotiations, it still creates a certain background, one that is highly favorable for the continuation of the talks. It is true that a new version of a conspiracy theory has been circulating recently among analysts in Moscow, according to which US President Barack Obama’s decision to accept the Russian proposal to destroy Syria’s arsenals of chemical weapons, in exchange for not launching a missile strike against Syria, was merely a tactical step. According to this version, the decision not to launch a strike was made not on the basis of a careful cost-benefit analysis and not because the majority of Americans opposed the plans for military action, but because there was too great a risk that the bombs and missiles could hit chemical weapons depots. Even if this had not happened, the losing side, which would have nothing left to lose, could have set off shells containing chemical weapons and blamed the attacker. The authors of this conspiracy theory say the Pentagon supposedly has a Plan B (or C), according to which they just need to “cleanse” Syrian territory of chemical weapons, and as soon as that operation is complete, a new pretext will be found to accuse Damascus of something and launch a strike. And there will be a great temptation to destroy not only the centers of power in the country but also the terrorist bases affiliated with al-Qaeda, to put the “moderate” opposition in power. Theories are theories, but let’s not forget that the military scenario is, in fact, still on the table.

At the official level, Moscow is demonstrating moderate optimism and continuing to work constructively with its partners, while underscoring its steadfast devotion to the principles of peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict based on respect for Syria’s sovereignty and disavowal of outside interference in Syrian affairs.

Dr. Vitaly Naumkin is a columnist for Al-Monitor. He is the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also professor and chair at the faculty of world politics, Moscow State University, and president of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic and Political Studies.

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