Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

The violence in Syria has descended into sectarian warfare, attracting Islamic extremists from all over the world. Tensions with Turkey have escalated as the conflict claims Turkish lives and threatens to spill across its border. The West, wringing its hands over whether and how to intervene, has offered a diplomatic solution, but one that requires an impossible, simultaneous laying down of arms. Russia, in the meantime, continues to send its navy to putter around menacingly at the Syrian port of Tartus, where it has a small base; it also continues to sell arms to Assad’s regime, despite U.S. objections. Nevertheless, Russia has expressed its hope and willingness to see the diplomatic solution put to work to avert a potential years-long civil war.

Sound familiar? That was June 2012, just under a year ago. Arguably, the only thing that’s changed in Syria since then is the scale: more casualties, more extremists, more violence, more spillover. What hasn’t changed is the rest of the world’s approach to the mess. Obama continues to waffle and stall, the Europeans continue to push for at least arming the rebels, and the Russians continue to hold the stay-out-of-it line, while doing little to hide the fact that their ships are massing in Tartus and that they’re shipping weapons to Assad.

What’s Russia’s endgame? That hasn’t changed much either: stall, maintain the status quo as long as possible. It is for this reason that Russian ships continue to cruise around in Tartus and that Moscow keeps sending arms to Damascus. The Russian ships and the anti-aircraft missiles won’t be used against the rebels—who have no planes or ships—but, rather, are Russia’s way of maintaining equilibrium. If the Saudis and Qataris arm the rebels, Russia will arm Assad. If the West makes moves to intervene, Russia ships and anti-aircraft supplies will have made the moves exponentially more risky. But the reality, as familiar as it is, is evolving, and it’s making it increasingly difficult for Russia to tread water. “Russia would prefer a status quo, yes, but everyone here understands that a status quo no longer exists,” says Fyodr Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It’s a slowly disintegrating situation. The erosion of the regime is acknowledged by all, but what is the time horizon? How long will it take till it finally crumbles? Russia can wait, but the U.S. can’t.”

Russia is willing to wait in part because it has, and has always had, a fundamentally different conception of the conflict. “For Americans to understand the Russian position, you have to understand that the American, Western position is not totally right,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy foreign affairs editor of the main Russian daily, Kommersant. “The Russian position is less emotional and more pragmatic. Russia doesn’t believe at face value all these emotional declarations that a bloody dictator is stifling freedom and democracy.” Since the conflict began, Russia has been pointing out that if Assad goes, those that replace him may not necessarily be liberal, Western-minded democrats. And what follows the end of this war may not necessarily be peace. Because, in Moscow’s view, what’s happening in Syria is a fundamentally local, religious fight, but one, as Yusin puts it, “to which we’ve all become prisoner.”

“Moscow understands that something has to be done because the war has been going on for two years and it has to stop,” he explains. “But if Assad’s opponents win, there will be a bloodbath. Shiites and Alawites will be slaughtered.” Moreover, he adds, echoing the official Russian position, that the successors to Assad will likely be the ones flying the black flag of jihad and sponsoring terrorism outside Syria’s borders. Lukyanov points out that Syria has long been home to those displaced by the upheavals in the Caucasus, which has become a hotbed of terrorism and Islamist insurrection. “Getting rid of a dictatorial but secular regime, and replacing it with an Islamist regime creates yet another support network for the terrorists in our backyard,” Lukyanov explains. Yusin makes a starker analogy. “Assad does not want to target America, but these guys do,” he says. “These are thousands of potential Tsarnaevs, and France and Britain want to arm them!”

One argument the Russians make officially is that all of this posturing, all of this standing behind Assad and sending ribboned delegations to show the Kremlin’s support, is not so much about Assad, but about principle. Assad won an election, and now the West and its Arab allies have decided to topple him — as the Kremlin sees it, in order to weaken Iran, Syria’s main ally. (American meddling has ramifications at home, too: Less than a year after Tahrir Square, Moscow exploded in anti-Putin protests with Western leaders, like Hillary Clinton, egging them on—at least that’s how the Kremlin saw it.) And if Syria goes, what happens to Iran, and, by extension, Russian influence in the region? They lost Saddam, they lost Qaddafi; now Assad, too?

This is the crux of the issue. Moscow may not have a long term plan—in fact, while it knows that the peace conference it’s co-sponsoring with the U.S. will inevitably fail, it continues to push the idea anyway—but fighting the fight, acknowledging the proxy war aloud is, in some ways, all that matters. “The issue isn’t a love for Assad, or our port at Tartus, or even the arms sales,” says Georgy Mirsky, a venerable Russian scholar of the Middle East. “These things matter, of course, but they are not the main thing. We can live without Syria, we can live without Assad, but to allow someone to say that Moscow is dancing to Washington’s tune would be unacceptable. Unacceptable.” This, Mirsky says, is a holdover from the Soviet days, which, at the Russian Foreign Ministry, have never quite receded. “Soviet rule has been gone for twenty years, but the Soviet mentality remains, especially at the very top,” Mirsky explains. “There is a very strong suspicion that you can’t trust the Americans in any way because they’ll take every opportunity to do something nasty to us. So the instinct is that if the Americans are against someone in the Third World, then we have to be for this person. And vice-versa. This all comes from the Soviet mentality.” This would explain why Mirsky once heard a Russian diplomat say, “I would rather have a nuclear Iran than a pro-American Iran.”

The problem with this approach, if you’re America, is that there isn’t much you can do with a fluid, roving check-mate. There is even less you can do when your ostensible partners in bringing the two sides together project onto you their worst fears and suspicions, and when everything is done not to win, but to prolong a status quo that no longer exists.

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria [TNR]

In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

On Monday afternoon, Italian premier Mario Monti and Russian president Vladimir Putin convened a small press conference in the slanting, gold light coming off the Black Sea. They had just met to discuss the European economic crisis as well as energy (Italy is Russia’s second biggest gas client), but they also touched on the deepening conflict in Syria.

“We do not want the situation to develop along the lines of a bloody civil war and for it to continue for who knows how many years, like in Afghanistan,” Putin said, standing with his perfect posture in a slate-gray summer suit. “We want there to be peace.” Russia does not want to see the establishment and the opposition to simply switch sides and keep fighting, Putin went on. Russia’s position remains unchanged, commented the reporter of Channel One, the country’s biggest (and state controlled) television channel. “The only way out of the crisis is through negotiations.”

The insistent, demonstrative reasonableness of Putin’s quote was more than bluster; it was also a reflection of how most Russians, including the Russian press, understand their country’s role in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

If the West has come to see Russia as the ornery spoiler in Syria, as the last ally of the cruel and increasingly embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia sees itself as the last sane person left in the room, the one geopolitical actor able to put emotion and cliché aside in favor of rational, balanced thought. Glancing at Russian press coverage of the Syrian conflict—and it is, in the Russian perspective a “crisis”—one will notice that it does not get nearly the same kind of coverage here as it does in the Western press. “Why does this peripheral country get so much attention?” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in World Affairs exclaimed when we spoke. “It just is not considered something extremely significant here.”

The Western observer tends to split the Russian press into two camps: evil statists and martyrs. But for their part, members of the Russian press are convinced of their superiority over their Western colleagues, at least when it comes to Syria. Russian journalists aren’t under the illusion that they are more objective than their Western counterparts, but they are convinced of their ability to convey a more realistic, complex picture of the events in Syria.

“The essence of the conflict is portrayed differently here than in the West,” explains Lukyanov. “Here, it is not a picture of peace-loving freedom fighters against a secretive, repressive regime. The Western picture is highly ideological and primitive. They have a template that’s used for all countries, even though, when it comes to these revolutions in the Arab world, each country is more complex than the previous one. The situation in Syria is much more tangled.” And though you can find a great variety of views on Syria in Russia—anything from the conspirological view that America is arming the rebels and ginned up the uprising to begin with, to the pro-Western, liberal chagrin that Russia is once again backing the bad guys—you would be hard-pressed to find a news outlet that uses the term “Arab Spring.”

In large part, this is because the Russian point of view starts with the naiveté of the Western point of view, and its corollary: That Russians alone can glimpse the ugly truths that run the world. “The Russian press is more accurate than the Western press, because the West, in painting [the Free Syrian Army] as freedom fighters, doesn’t understand that these guys, are blood-sucking vampires and if they come to power there will be hell to pay, and for the Americans, too,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy editor of the foreign affairs section of the daily newspaper Kommersant, Russia’s largest and among its more liberal. (I should note that, in my three years reporting on Russia and befriending local colleagues, I’ve only ever previously heard the opposite: a refrain about the superiority of American journalism to the unprofessionalism of the still young Russian press.)

“The Americans came to terms with the Arab Spring because they think that this is something they can understand, that democracy works the same way in America as it does in the Arab world,” Yusin goes on. “But it’s not how democracy works in the Arab world,” he says, pointing out that, in Gaza, a democratic election brought Hamas to power. “Russians understand it better,” Yusin explains. “They understand that this is a conflict between the civilized world and the suicide bombers who cry ‘Allahu akbar!’”

Russians are happy to dish out this kind of straight talk, sweeping cultural sensitivities aside, because they consider such constructs to be artificial and twee—and therefore dangerous. In the Russian mind, geopolitics are a hard and serious business; they are not a proper venue for American idealism and, unfortunately, there are many bungled Western interventions to back the Russians up. “Many analysts are surprised that the West is supporting Islamist uprisings against secular regimes,” says Lukyanov. “What’s the end game? Tunisia, Egypt, Libya show that the Islamists win. In Russia, this causes alarm. The more Islamists there are in the Middle East, the more there will be in the Northern Caucasus,” he explained referring to the mountainous region in Russia’s south, which has been crippled by two Chechen wars and a ruinous and bloody Islamic insurgency for years. And so, while the New York Times wrung its hands over whether or not Assad would use chemical weapons against the rebels, Gazeta.ru, a very liberal online newspaper, led with a story about hundreds of Chechen fighters taking up arms in Syria.

On the whole, though, Russians—both the press, and their audience—just don’t seem to have much appetite for the story. Unless Assad falls, it’s unlikely to make it onto any front pages or to lead the nightly news. It is just one more shadowy battle between the world powers and their competing interests, and, much like in the United States, there is plenty to worry about at home: political instability, corruption, flash floods and official incompetence, and, perhaps, a looming economic crisis. A poll done this spring by the independent Levada Center found that the vast majority of Russians do not support more sanctions against Assad, and even fewer support armed intervention. Asked how they would describe the situation in Syria, most said they saw it either as a civil war or as “terrorists, abetted by the West” fighting a “legitimate government.” But the biggest share of all just didn’t know how to answer.

In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy [TNR]