The Russia Profile Special Report is a quarterly publication that consists of a collection of articles by different staff and freelance authors dedicated to a specific central theme of the editors' choosing. Stories found in our Special Reports are the best-researched, most profound and comprehensive analytical pieces available at RussiaProfile.Org.
The Special Reports are an indispensible tool for any Russia watcher or researcher interested in taking a closer look at the pressing issues that affect the modern Russian society. The reports are a derivative of the print version of our monthly magazine that is no longer published on paper, but is available in various digital formats for the convenience of our readers.
We welcome all feedback and suggestions from our readers, so if there is a specific topic you would like Russia Profile to take a closer look at, please let us know!
UN Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan made a commendable last minute effort to bring about an international settlement to the ongoing civil war in Syria by convening a meeting of nine countries in Geneva on June 30 and putting forward a reasonable blueprint for a Syria-led political transition. But does it have a realistic shot at ending the violence in Syria and launching a credible political transition? Are outside powers really in a position to force the Syrian parties to put an end to fighting? Can Russia really force him to step down?
Annan's new plan calls for the “establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place…The transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”
According to The New York Times, the Syria Action Group “had considered barring from the proposed unity government those ‘whose participation would jeopardize stability and reconciliation,’ understood to be a reference to President Assad. That language was dropped from the final agreement after Russia, Mr. Assad’s strongest ally, objected.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered different interpretations of whether the plan contained a requirement for Assad's exit.
According to the Times report, “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the omission would make no difference in practice. ‘Assad will still have to go,’ she said. ‘He will never pass the mutual-consent test given the blood on his hands.’ In return for these semantic concessions, she said, the United States and its allies had “made clear to Russia and China that it is absolutely incumbent on them to make clear to Assad that the writing is on the wall.”
Apparently, this is not what Lavrov read in the statement. He said there was no requirement that Mr. Assad should step down. “There is no attempt to impose any kind of a transition process,” he said at a news conference in Geneva last Saturday. “There are no prior conditions to the transfer process and no attempt to exclude any group from the process.”
Earlier reports by Bloomberg that “Russia has realized that Assad is losing the battle to preserve his grip on power, and now the Vladimir Putin administration is seeking a leading role in paving a smooth exit for a longtime Soviet and Russian client and arms customer,” have not been borne out by Russia's insistence in Geneva that any language that could be interpreted as a requirement for Assad's exit be removed from Annan's statement.
If Clinton's interpretation is correct, it is now Moscow's task to persuade Assad to step down and leave Syria, while the West should ensure that the Syrian opposition complies with Annan's six-point plan. But can Moscow actually ensure Assad's ouster?
Assad may have concluded that there is no viable exit strategy for him. He will therefore take his chances to destroy the opposition by force. He’s been gambling that there will be no Libya-style intervention led by NATO, as long as Russia and China continue to block Security Council action. He must also be betting that Barack Obama, Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande have no desire to launch a war in Syria outside the UN framework.
Assad has already declared that Syria is in a state of war, fighting outside forces and international terrorism, and has vowed to keep fighting to destroy the enemies of Syrian statehood. He may also be losing control over his security forces and Allawite militias, and his ability to order an end to violence could be diminishing. He may have no way to go, even if Lavrov or Putin beg him to relocate to Moscow.
Is Kofi Annan's new plan doomed, or does it have a realistic shot at ending the violence in Syria and launching a credible political transition? Are outside powers really in a position to force the Syrian parties to put an end to fighting? Can Russia really force him to step down?
Dale Herspring, Distinguished Professor, Kansas State University, Kansas
In many ways, the answer depends on an unknown. That is, how strong is Assad's position vis-à-vis his military? Further, how strong is the Syrian Army? If reports of fighting near Damascus are true, it raises serious questions about its long-term viability.
Another key mystery is the closeness of the Russian-Syrian relationship. There is no question that Assad knows he is dependent on Moscow, but as the United States has learned over the years, just because you’re someone's benefactor, it does not mean they will follow your instructions.
This brings me to the U.S.-Russian relationship. Since Obama has ruled out the use of force, Clinton's bag of tricks is very limited. She doesn't have any cards to play, so she dances around through language, finding a positive outcome. For its part, Moscow holds the strong hand and does not appear ready to sacrifice its last strong ally in the region.
Finally, I am not sure anyone can convince the Syrian opposition to do anything. Based on what I have seen, it is not a coherent organization.
In short, I suspect that we will continue to read the same old reports of bloody and inhuman life in Syria regardless of what Moscow, Washington or the UN thinks.
Srdja Trifkovic, Editor, The Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture
The real question is whether Russia should “deliver” Assad at all. Clinton’s haughtily arrogant language is sufficient reason not to oblige her, regardless of the merits of the Syrian case. The interventionists in Washington should be disabused of the notion that once they decide a certain outcome is non-negotiable, they can bully other players into submission.
By now, Clinton and the rest of the neoliberal-neocon duopoly believe they have all four key ingredients in place to get their way: atrocity management, as shown in Houla, reminiscent of the stage-managed “Racak Massascre” in Kosovo that preceded the U.S.-led NATO war against Serbia in 1999; misrepresentation of the insurgency as a fully-fledged “civil war” between two sides – one virtuous, the other hopelessly evil – making it easier to advocate intervening on the “good” side; the assertion that intervention is a moral imperative and a test of American “leadership,” which the rest of the world supposedly hopes for and expects; and the claim that intervention is a geopolitical necessity, because the Russians are already allegedly involved by arming government forces and because a regime change in Damascus would be a blow to Iran’s position in the region.
Clinton’s deliberate misrepresentation of facts regarding the delivery of Russian helicopters to the Syrian government should be a warning to Moscow not to cave in. For a Madam Secretary to lie is nothing new: Madeleine Albright did it routinely in the 1990s to justify the Bosnian intervention and the Kosovo war. For her current successor to resort to falsehoods in order to provoke the Russians is remarkable, however. It is easy to imagine the reaction in Washington if Moscow started demanding the removal of the blood-soaked kleptocrats who rule Bahrain, while arming the Shia rebels there and insisting that Russia would work together with Washington – for as long as the United States accepts that regime change is inevitable and non-negotiable.
The insurgency in Syria is not a spontaneous process: the United States is throwing gasoline onto the fire. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are already providing the funds and Jihadist volunteers for the rebels, re-Islamized Turkey is becoming the key staging post, while America and NATO provide the weapons and trainers. The beneficiaries are mostly the Muslim Brotherhood, murderous zealots all, who over the past six weeks have been promptly converted into pro-Western freedom fighters. It is all eerily reminiscent of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “brilliant idea” in 1979 to train, arm and equip Islamic fundamentalists as a tool against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The fruits will be the same. A post-Assad Syria – however fragmented – would become a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and Jihad terrorism. That is not in anyone’s interest, and Russia should stand firm not only for the sake of its strategic interests, which include the facilities at Tartus, but because it is the right thing to do.
That Syria is becoming an increasingly contentious issue in relations between Washington and Moscow is an unnecessary and potentially dangerous development entirely of the Obama administration’s own making. That the strategic rationale for such behavior is lacking is not surprising. All major U.S.-led interventions of the past two decades – Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – have been self-defeating, illegal, and beneficial to the warriors in the path of the Prophet. Syria would be no exception. The U.S. policy is mad and bad, and for Russia to accommodate madness would mean to become part of it.
Vladimir Belaeff, World Policy, Institute, San Francisco, CA
The tragicomic dynamics of many “patron-client” relationships is that the patron becomes an unwitting hostage of the client’s machinations. For reasons of prestige, appearances or ideology, the patron must pretend to influence the client, when in reality no such influence is in effect. The Soviet Union was trapped by ideology several times in such situations – with the missiles in Castro’s Cuba, the interminable and pointless “wars of liberation” in post-colonial Africa, and in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Syria is very probably another legacy where the situation has already crossed the threshold of reversibility. No one can really “deliver” anything there anymore. Russia is alleged to be a “patron” of the “client” Syria.
However, there is no real evidence that Moscow is able to persuade Assad to do anything substantial, in particular to commit political suicide. Perhaps if Washington guaranteed Assad a lifetime safe haven in America, he might surrender – but exile in Russia, the “patron” who “abandoned” him, may not be so appealing to the Syrian leader.
As long as the West and the Syrian opposition remain intransigent on the fate of the current government in Damascus, Assad is trapped and has nowhere to go. And if Assad has nothing left to lose, with the image of an assassinated Gaddafi ever present to him, there is not much Assad can be offered on the “carrot” side of the “carrot and stick” proposition.
The problem is that the “stick” side is also not very credible. Syria is not Libya (or Milosevic’s Yugoslavia). Syria is more like Iraq. An air bombing campaign alone is not likely to expel Assad; ground troops are needed – many troops, and for a long time. Also, Iran is just next door, ready to assist whoever fights the “Western imperialists.” Forced regime change in Iraq required substantial military presence for 11 years, and the process is not over yet. Is anyone ready and willing to repeat the Iraqi experience in Syria?
Whoever in the West is choosing to support the motley Syrian opposition appears to be making the same mistake that was made with the Iraqi opposition, which was foolishly trusted in its claims that Iraq was ripe for a “Connecticut on the Tigris River.”
Unfortunately, it seems that just as Moscow is not able to “deliver Assad,” the West is unable to influence the Syrian opposition into realistic, organized, state-like behavior either. It appears that the alleged “clients” have now trapped the alleged “patrons.”
Regrettably, Syria seems to be on a course toward prolonged civil conflict, where outside forces will not be able to impose peace for quite a while. Thus, the terminus of the much-praised “Arab Spring” may be a “Syrian bloodbath.”
There is a regional analog: the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 15 years and caused enormous human losses and material damage. One of the most advanced Middle East societies was destroyed. That war was stopped through a massive military intervention by an external Arab power – Assad’s Syria.
Twenty-two years have elapsed since then. The Middle East is very different now, and there is a troubling question as to whether the region can absorb fifteen years of civil war in Syria. Those who demand “regime change” in Damascus may rue the day.
Dick Krickus, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC
Officials in the Kremlin claim that there is no way Vladimir Putin will join any international campaign to oust Bashar Al-Assad. There are compelling commercial, economic and security incentives for him to adopt this position and he will not compromise his macho image at home to please Washington in its quest to achieve regime change throughout the Middle East.
Kremlin officials believe that Assad is resolute and that the odds are in his favor that he will prevail against a divided, disorganized and outgunned opposition. Neither the Americans nor the Sunni Arabs – or even Turkey – are prepared to deploy their troops to topple Assad.
For years, North Korea and Iran have demonstrated that they can survive international isolation, and so can Bashar’s Syria. In face of these facts, Washington last week dropped language that required Bashar’s removal from Kofi Annan’s orchestrated solution to the Syrian crisis. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, appears confident that Assad will prevail after the international community leaves his opponents “high and dry.”
There is, however, a counter-narrative that the Kremlin must consider. First, a majority of Assad’s people, mostly but not all Sunnis, want him out. Given his brutal crackdown, there is no turning back. As yet, neighboring states are reluctant to intervene militarily, but fighters hostile to Assad are now receiving a steady flow of arms and ammunition, and their ranks are being bolstered by deserters from the Syrian armed forces. At the same time, fighters from neighboring countries have entered the fray in small numbers, but they may become a more significant factor as Syria becomes the Middle East’s “Spanish Civil War.” Insurgents now control many parts of the country and violence is even commonplace in Damascus. Everyone in Syria is suffering from a faltering economy, and this is especially troubling for business interests and other influential members of Syrian society that have remained loyal to Assad. Many are having second thoughts and might jump ship should the international community provide them with guarantees that most of them will not become victims of etribution if Assad’s opponents win. This, of course, holds true of the Alawites and other ethnic and religious minorities.
Even if Putin publicly denounces him, the Syrian dictator would stand fast. But if Russia joined the international community and Assad was offered a safe way out of the country, along with other key associates, he might decide it is his best bet to escape with his skin. Even more compelling, powerful interests that have remained with him may cite Russia’s flip flop as evidence that the time had some to strike a deal.
An outcome of this nature would be facilitated were Washington to accept what many realists believe is essential: include Tehran in the negotiations. The United States has enormous influence in the world, but it cannot ignore the dynamics of international politics. That said, Barack Obama would be a brave – some would say foolhardy – man to include Iran in the agreement. Granted the American people have little interest in world affairs as they struggle with a pervasive economic crisis, but his Republican opponents would cite this practical move as just the most recent example of a Democratic president “appeasing the enemy.” Of course, if there is a break-through in the talks, Washington might accept Tehran’s participation in a Syrian peace settlement.
The Kremlin might ponder the following observation: if Putin joins the international community in dumping Assad and the dictator refuses to resign, the gesture would be a substantial international asset for Russia. As a pragmatist, Putin must ultimately act upon this truism.
You may place this material on your blog by copying the link.