Friday 27 April 2012

Russia: Big appetite, big mouth and rotten teeth

Authoritative political analyst Sarkis Naoum writes daily for Beirut’s newspaper an-Nahar.
He only puts his daily comments on hold once or twice a year, when he travels to the United States for brainstorming sessions on topical Middle East issues with past or present Administration officials and think-tank heavyweights.
Once back in Beirut, his columns serialize his stateside findings the span of two or three weeks.
After his piece last week (“Syria is fragmenting, says American facilitator”), here is his write-up today about Russia’s big appetite, big mouth and rotten teeth:
Sarkis Naoum: The high-ranking U.S. official – who is an old hand in Middle East affairs now handling files partly linked to Syria, Israel and Lebanon – is telling me why Russian leaders resumed the Cold War with America.
They [Russians] tell us America is arming the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian opposition. This is not true. They told us this lately in the course of our visit to Moscow.
We responded: If you sincerely believe what you say, we are prepared to elaborate and convince you it is false. But if you are, knowingly and deliberately, bringing up the arming issue with us for propaganda purposes while knowing it is unfounded, we shall listen to you respectfully and return home.
There are many reasons prompting Russia to support Syria and Bashar al-Assad. Among them is (Vladimir) Putin’s bid for the presidency. But, believe me, the day will come when Putin will haggle with Assad.
Assad doesn’t grasp this. Russia as a state is dying. Alcoholism in Russia is a big problem. So is the fact that the death rate exceeds the birth rate. [Russia’s] economic boom is fuelled by the oil boom and by the high level of energy prices.
Russia is rich in oil but does not have a strong economy. That’s why its economic growth is unsteady.
In any case, we need to discuss with the Russians ways of convincing Assad to leave office and spend the rest of his life in Russia or in any other state willing to offer him sanctuary. As far as I know, four or five states have already made him the offer.
So far, he has adamantly refused. He insists on staying in the country despite everything. Like his friends in Lebanon, he believes it won’t take him long to finish off the rebels through violence, repression and ‘cleansing.’
Discussions are ongoing in Washington about going back to the UN Security Council… It’s important we get the Russians on board with us. That will send a strong message to Assad.
Will the Russians go along with us? Will they acquiesce? I don’t know. I know they can’t keep supporting Assad unless of course civil war in Syria becomes a fait accompli. In that case, civil war will be drawn-out – perhaps for years.
Nonetheless, we have the means to pressure Russia, and we will use them.
Sarkis Naoum: You did well at the Security Council when Russia and China vetoed the UN draft resolution on Syria. You were able to get India, Brazil and South Africa to join you in voting in favor. Will you be trying to keep those nations on your side? Your relations with China differ from those with Russia. Unlike Russia, China does not seem directly concerned with Syria…
What you just said is correct. We try our best. Mussolini used to say ages ago: “Big appetite, big mouth and rotten teeth.” That’s Russia today.
Sarkis Naoum: What about Turkey? It talked tough in the early stages of the Syrian crisis, making Syrians and Arabs believe it would do its utmost against Assad to protect Syrians and the rebels. It later backpedaled and seemed hesitant, which upset both Syrians and Arabs. What is Turkey really after?
Despite its muscle and solid economic growth, Turkey too could be parroting Mussolini: “Big appetite, big mouth and rotten teeth.”
Turkey concluded clearly last August that Assad and his regime should go. This came after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Damascus visit.
Assad listens, concurs but doesn’t implement, and sometime dismisses.
Davutoglu is an excellent theoretician but he is not adequately pragmatic. I met with him on one of my assignments. We broached the subject of the Freedom Flotilla. I asked him about his government’s support for the flotilla and the likely negative fallouts on Turkey. He answered me: “We are a free nation; people are free to do as they wish, but they won’t involve the government.” Israel attacked the flotilla, people were killed and others injured and the Turkish government got involved and remains so until this day.
There is some oversimplification, or maybe inexperience, in this day’s Turkey.
Turkey is strong. We don’t doubt that. But it faces many problems in its relations with the Army…