Russia’s unbalancing act
Moscow is having a series of contacts with the Syrian opposition, particularly with those who were a part of the regime and who had then enjoyed political and security ties with Moscow. Therefore, the Russian diplomacy has some effective tools of communication with all senior personalities who belong to the leftists and Pan-Arabist current. And yet, despite these contacts, Russia has projected a contradictory position with regard to Iraq and Libya in the past and Syria today.
Moscow is fighting to secure its regional, national and global interests. Unfortunately, it is afraid of the rise of Sunni Islam in Syria. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Russia is concerned about the Sunnis in Syria. It is as if Russia has some kind of complex with the Sunnis.
According to the Israeli National Security Institute, Russia has doubled its efforts to cut a deal with the United States in order to enable the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition to reach an agreement. However, the US realizes that neither the Syrian opposition nor the Syrian president can decide the battle on the ground especially after some 85,000 casualties and some two million refugees. Supported by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the government of Nuri Al-Maliki in Iraq, the Syrian regime used all kinds of weapons to repress the Syrian revolution.
Not only does Russia support the Syrian regime, but it also backs the Iranian axis (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and perhaps some secessionists in Yemen). Moreover, Russia is trying to demoralize the Syrian people and supporting the Al-Maliki government to clamp down on Sunni protests in major Iraqi cities. The working assumption in Russia is that the Sunnis are supported by the West. Yet, Moscow does not acknowledge that it was incapable of defending its interests in Iraq in the past when the Iraqi groups — supported by and affiliated with Iran — jumped on the American bandwagon. Interestingly, Moscow had a strategic cooperation agreement with Saddam regime and still was incapable of coming to his aid in time of need. This begs the questions: Did not the West threaten the Russian national security in Afghanistan? Why is Russia holding on in Syria?
If anything, Moscow and Washington are negotiating over Russian national security issues that are not in Syria. Russia is using Syria as a card and will drop it once it reaches a deal with the United States. Seen in this way, I would argue that the current negotiations are on the future of Syria rather than on the Assad’s regime. Russia is trying to avoid a possible expulsion for the Middle East. The Sunni component — according to some Russian reading — will keep the Russians out of the Middle East. Of course, it is not as if the Sunni forces do not want to deal with Moscow. At the end, Russia is a neighboring country and can play a positive role especially after it abandoned communism. The Gulf countries have tried to build political, diplomatic and economic ties with Russia. The problem is that Russia is trying to use the Syrian crisis as a bargaining chip with the United States, a step that does not resonate well with the Arabs on political and ethical grounds. Russia still supports a failing regime in Syria and realizes that such support will only pave the way for a long civil war in Syria.
During the most recent Herzliya conference, the head of the Israeli military intelligence made the case that Iran was behaving in the nuclear issue as if the military option was not on the table. Moreover, Assad behaves as if using chemical weapons is possible in his war against the Syrian opposition. He argued that both Iran and Hezbollah came to the conclusion that the fate of Assad is already decided and that the negotiations will be only over the future of Syria. For this reason, they formed a sectarian army of 50,000 fighters and they are trying to recruit some 100,000 fighters.
The current negotiations between the regime and the opposition under the auspices of Russia are not a reflection of any understanding between Russia and the US over the future of the Syrian regime. While the two sides have not yet reached a final agreement, the new decisions made in the US — such as aid to the opposition — allowed for some coordination with the Russians. All of these decisions reflect changes in the position of the two sides.
It seems that Moscow is fighting to keep its political dignity. In fact it will be a costly fight as it is relevant to the Syrian people and countries in the region. For this reason, Moscow is trying to reconsider an agreement between the opposition and the regime in Damascus. This entails understanding with not only the US but also with the other players involved in the conflict.
Obviously, Russia will not succeed in facilitating an agreement between the Syrian regime and the opposition unless it leads to Assad’s departure. And yet, both Iran and Russia know very well that change is coming and they deal with that with a sense of realism.