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DIFFERENT OPINIONS

The opinions expressed by the authors of the articles in this section are for discussion purposes only and may not coincide with the position of the Russian Government and the Embassy

23.03.2012

The Syrian conflict as a school of diplomacy

Article by Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor of Russia in the Global Politics magazine

Russia remains a power not to be bypassed

It’s been more than a year since the disturbances in Syria, which sets the time record of the “Arab spring” — no one of the leaders has managed to hold out for so long since the beginning of the unrests. “The long-liver” has been the President of Yemen Abdallah Saleh; however, he left the country after the attempt on his life, and rather than trying to hold on to his power he employed some ingenious maneuvering to hand it over in a safe way. So he did, and obtained some guarantees in addition.

What is the reason for the relative stability of the Syrian regime?

Firstly, Syria has a significant social stratum that has something to lose. According to some estimates, there are about 15 to 20 per cent of Assad’s firm supporters, and about one third of the population fears that any change will bode ill. This one third contains influential minorities – Christians, including Armenians, Kurds, and Ismaelites, ets. All of them fear that an overthrow of the Allawites and a triumph of the Sunni majority will result in other groups being persecuted. For this reason, the population remains divided into two, which creates prerequisites for a long-time civil war and allows the official Damascus to invoke wide popular support.

Secondly, the balance of military forces has, to all appearances, tipped against the opposition. The taking of Homs has proved to be Assad’s important victory, which has, to a certain extent, changed the international attitude as well. As long as a month ago, they used to speak of a forthcoming collapse of his regime as a virtually accomplished fact, at present the comments are somewhat more restrained.

Thirdly, Assad benefited from the regional context. The operation in Libya was declared NATO’s success; however, it has cooled off the enthusiasm for military intervention. On the one hand, the Europeans, who bore the main burden of the conflict, simply have run out of funds and face the limits of their military potential. On the other hand, the growing Islamisation of all former secular dictatorships makes Western countries have second thoughts as to whether it is expedient to give too active a support to the opposition forces. And although Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf demand a rapid arming of the rebels which is welcomed by most passionate American democracy zealots, such as John McCain, the official Washington is biding its time.

Fourthly, Gaddafi’s Libya has lost all of its friends (as Jamahirya’s leader caused too much trouble for his neighbours and other countries). On the contrary, Assad’s Syria can not only count on backing from Iran and a cover from Russia and China, but also on silent neutrality from a majority of neighbouring states, from Iraq to Jordan, appalled by the prospect of a large-scale regional war.

And lastly, the adoption of the UN SC Resolution sanctioning military intervention in Libya now made Moscow and Beijing, who had abstained a year ago, refuse to support any document containing a slightest hint of use of force. From the point of view of Russia and China, NATO and other participants of the operation in Libya blatantly used the Resolution to justify an undisguised regime change.

It has been quite a while since Russia was last subject to such harsh criticism for its position on Syria. Moscow has been accused of complicity in killings motivated not only by personal liking for the tyrant, but also by gain from trade in arms. In particular, this was stated by the US Permanent Representative to the UN Susan Rice. Less emotional onlookers were puzzled why Russia would so persistently cling to an obviously doomed regime not willing to diversify its contacts and build a bridge to the future. Regardless of the threats of isolation, Moscow assumed a most uncompromising position.

In spite of everything, Russia has won the first round; however, this game is far from over. Certainly, if the gain is to be estimated solely in mercantile categories, then having business as usual with Damascus is now hardly possible. Although Assad is stubborn and quite efficient in his resistance, what he is trying to do is raising stakes to secure better terms for a deal on honourable capitulation rather than a victory over his opponents. The outside pressure will continue and they will not allow Assad to keep his power, but the conditions are yet to be determined. In any case, those who come to replace Bashar Al Assad will not be adherents of close relationship with Russia.

However, Moscow does not aim at preserving contacts with Damascus but at asserting its international standing. By not yielding to psychological and diplomatic pressure Russia proved that despite it had lost its positions in the Middle East (with Syria as the last close partner), it remains a power which is not to be bypassed on any count. It is not quite clear to what extent the West, Turkey and Arab states are willing to interfere in the Syrian affairs, while Russian diplomats have been unambiguously explicit in saying that they would not allow to legitimize this action through the UN Security Council. No one dares to act at his risk and expense without a UN sanction, despite the insistent calls for intervention from the Syrian opposition. As a result, Washington started talking of area of disagreement with Moscow narrowing, while the League of Arab states engaged in a dialogue with Russia.

All of this is hardly to imply that settlement in Syria has become more probable. The situation has gone too far and too much blood has been already spilled, while the sides have had zero willingness to compromise. However, the Syrian conflict has provided external players with a fair amount of food for thought. Just enough to avoid repeating the same mistakes in future.




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