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February 02, 2012, Thursday

Russian resistance for Syria

As the last Baathist regime struggles for survival in the bloody theater of Syria, the international community also displays a worrisome hesitation based on the parameters of the Cold War, which many had hoped would be abandoned long ago. Once more, to be able to end the bloodbath in a conflict zone -- in Syria -- the members of the UN Security Council are at odds with each other on what to do and how.

Nobody knows whether or not a reasonable agreement among the Permanent Five is possible today or next week, or weeks after. The uncertainty continues while Assad and the ruthless guardians of Baathism acquire more weaponry to enhance the scope of the crackdown and to kill more people. If we are to take seriously the Syrian human rights observers, that number now exceeds 7,000.

Russia is again in the lead to pull on the brakes. Sergei Lavrov, its foreign minister, sings the tunes once so loved by his predecessors in the Soviet era, “njet, njet, njet” as the refrain. Ever suspicious, slow, resistant to flexibility, there is nothing too surprising in Lavrov’s rhetoric; it only reflects a nostalgia for his country’s position and influence in various parts of the Arab world, where Baathism and its derivatives once thrived and ruled with the iron fist.

The Kremlin’s objection to calls for Bashar al-Assad to surrender power and stop the bloodshed focuses on a single point. As Russia’s envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, has stated, the UN Security Council resolution was “missing the most important thing: a clear clause ruling out the possibility that the resolution could be used to justify military intervention in Syrian affairs from outside.” But Moscow knows that the Arab League plan -- backed by France, the US, the UK and almost all the non-permanent members of the Security Council -- falls under Chapter VI of the UN charter, which cannot authorize armed action.

There is something deeper than whining over wording. For the Russian side, the first motive can be recognized as a desire to protect a state that it is practically left alone in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed a weakening of the World’s interests in the region as a whole, making it irrelevant, particularly after the second Iraqi war. Some observers hold that Russia is desperately trying to keep its power base safe by sending warships to Syrian ports and by offering itself in an intermediary role between Assad’s team and the opposition (which the Syrian opposition wisely rejected.)

But this motive does not really cut it. Russia should have realized by now that Assad is no longer an option for an inevitable transition -- he has squandered his chances -- and it will gain nothing by standing there as a protector of some sort. As Assad falls, Russia -- if that choice is real -- will see its image eroded in the Arab world. Syrian Baathists also know that Russia has realized this; they only aim to extend their rule by using the Kremlin’s resistance to the UN as a tool so that they can do what they hope for: annihilate the internal opposition.

Both Washington and Ankara are weary of the current Russian attitude. One minister told me recently of Lavrov: “He is a Homo Sovieticus and does not hide it in his reasoning. He is very suspicious of the West, and on one point he may be right: When Sarkozy and Cameron hastily visited Libya after the fall of Ghadafi, Russians perceived this as a clear step for new colonialism by the West. The French and the Brits do not realize the damage this visit has done.” But this fails to explain why Lavrov and others of the Kremlin should choose confrontation of the kind we speak of rather than more sophisticated negotiation of the Arab transition(s).

Another point is fear. The envisioned embargo on Syria by the US and the EU will definitely hurt Russian military supply shipments and arms sales, as well as those of other goods, which will force Moscow more towards the margins of the region. It fears becoming irrelevant in the region, partial economic weakening and political alienation. “One of the greatest tasks now regarding Syria and Iraq,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said recently at a UN conference in Beirut, “is to stop the Cold War logic.” He may be right, but where actors like the US, the UK and Turkey see the need for new thinking and flexible reasoning, Moscow sees only weakness.

Therein lies perhaps the most reasonable explanation of Russian foot-dragging. Still clinging to the manners of the Cold War, it wants security and “assurances” that will make it possible to keep -- and also expand -- its influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Once this is done, Assad’s path down from power will be much shorter; he will be a liability.

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