Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Russia consistent in goal of bringing Assad to Syrian peace table

Global Times

Recently Russia came under fire for allegedly providing Syria with more missiles, considered a "game changer" in Damascus' ability to ward off the specter of foreign intervention. A Russia-US peace summit has been proposed to end the conflict in Syria, which has caused a reported 94,000 deaths.

Taken at face value, it would seem that Moscow is playing a duplicitous role, backing the Syrian regime on one hand and pushing for peace on the other. Yet Russia has been acting consistently in its foreign policy on the Syria crisis.

The latest outcry over Moscow's bullish support for the Syrian government stemmed from a New York Times article that claimed Russia had provided Yakhont cruise missiles and S-300 surface-to-air missiles. The article was duly pounced upon by the press as further evidence of Russia being an accomplice to the murderous Syrian regime.

But did Moscow provide missiles this time or not? Russia's response was essentially "so what if we did?".

"I don't understand why mass media are trying to make a sensation out of the fact. We do not conceal that we supply weapons to Syria according to signed contracts," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Why is Russia taking such a seemingly belligerent stance on the Syria crisis? The Kremlin is not keen on a repeat of NATO's intervention in Libya, which cost Moscow business and undercut its domestic and international standing by allowing the overthrow of the Libyan regime.

Moscow may also view any intervention in Syria as a precursor for a US-led attack on Iran. At another level, Moscow looks at the regime as the lesser evil compared to the multi-factional rebels. It wants to prevent Syria being taken over by Islamic radicals and the country turning into an "Afghanistan on the Mediterranean."

Moscow's fear of an "Islamist spring" and the rise of Islamic politics in the Middle East is that it could cause ferment in its own backyard, the Caucasus, where Russia has had a fraught history.

The church is also playing an increasing role in Russian politics and foreign policy, with Moscow willing to play the part of the defender of Christianity that secular Europe and the US cannot overtly do.

Moscow also has interests in Syria. The two countries have ties dating back to the Soviet era. Yet Moscow's relationship with Damascus is not an alliance, it is one of a client. Syria has nothing to really offer Russia in natural resources, and it is not a financially beneficial relationship either.

Indeed, in 2005, Moscow had to write off $10 billion of Syria's $13 billion Soviet-era debt to sell more weapons.

While the naval base at Tartous is frequently cited as a major factor in Russia's pro-Syria stance, the facility is of limited significance, hosting some 50 staff and modest docking capabilities, a far cry from, say, the US naval base in Bahrain with over 5,000 personnel.

But Syria's geostrategic positioning next to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel is of clear importance, as is its 6,300 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines.

As for the Russia-US planned talks, to be held in Geneva, this is consistent with Moscow's end goal of a transitional government that involves the Bashar al-Assad regime's Baath party and the opposition.

Russia's role in the talks is crucial in bringing the Assad regime to the table. The struggle will be to bring in all the opposition forces.

To do so, the talks should involve more actors that are crucial in the conflict, namely Turkey and Iran, as well as the primary financial backers of the rebels, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

If the peace talks are successful, the Kremlin would have achieved its foreign policy objectives of preventing foreign intervention and an Islamist Syria, as well as retaining a regional foothold.

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