Wednesday 28 March 2012

"Is Russia Changing Tack on Syria?"

Interviewing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for Kommersant FM radio (on March 19) was an interesting experience. Russia's diplomat-in-chief was glad to be able to engage in some ping-pong on issues like the death penalty in Belarus, U.S.-Russian relations, Iran’s nuclear program and, of course, the Syrian crisis.
This was probably one of the most interesting bits of the conversation. On this issue Lavrov was most expansive and most emotional – at least for a diplomat.
Konstantin von Eggert (Photo from RIA Novosti)
On the one hand he repeated the oft-quoted claims that in Syria it was not strictly speaking a confrontation between the army and unarmed civilians, but a fight between two forces – the Assad regime’s army and security forces and al-Qaeda terrorists.
“It is true that some people have taken up arms to defend their homes and families, but that’s not the whole story,” Lavrov said before setting out to describe what he saw as a plot by the Sunni states (for these, read “Qatar and Saudi Arabia”) to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s Alawi government in Syria and replace it with a Sunni one. However when I asked whether Moscow considers the possibility that the Syrian president may have to flee to Russia, if the situation in his country really sours, Lavrov snapped: “No one is inviting him to Moscow.”
The minister reserved quite a healthy dose of criticism for Mr. Assad himself. “We absolutely do not justify the Syrian leadership,” he told me. “We consider that the Syrian leadership reacted incorrectly to the rise of nonviolent protest, that despite the promises that were made in response to our numerous appeals, they are making many mistakes, and those steps being made in the proper direction are happening late.”
Mr. Lavrov suggested that a roundtable should be set up in Syria along the lines of the one which had agreed on easing Ali Abdullah Saleh from Yemen’s presidential chair, which he occupied for more than thirty years, initiated a transition period and created a new legitimate and recognized authority, in the figure of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi.
When I countered that Yemen is still living through something that many experts describe as a low-intensity civil war, the minister said that there was a massive al-Qaeda presence in Yemen, which contributed to the instability. I did not get the chance to ask why then the Syrian situation, of which according to the Russian version, radical Islamists are also part, should develop along the lines of the Yemeni scenario.
However, it was probably for the first time that a Russian government official was so frank in criticizing Damascus and so detailed in describing a possible way out of the Syrian dead end. It seems to have finally dawned on the Russian leadership that its Syrian ally will not emerge a winner from this crisis. With both the Arab world and most of the West ranged against him, and only Iran and Russia to help him in any way, Bashar al-Assad’s fortunes do not look good at all. Moreover, even if he manages to quell the uprising now, too much blood has been spilled in this intra-Syrian tragedy for life in the country to return to the days of the oppressive stability that the regime managed to maintain in the first decade of al-Assad’s rule.
The negotiated solution that Russia is suggesting would involve external players and give Moscow time to bargain over its commercial and military interests in Syria. It will also help avoid “regime change” in its classic form. And this is the Kremlin’s main concern. Ever since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, but especially after the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine the Russian leadership is obsessed with the idea of the West engineering the overthrow of governments that for this or that reason it finds unsuitable. Vladimir Putin and his team seem to be convinced that something like that could happen to Russia.
Moscow’s adamant (until recently) stance on Syria has a lot to do with arms sales to Damascus and the Russian naval station in the port of Tartus. But it has even more to do with the Kremlin making a point internationally which is quite simple: “Neither the UN, nor any other body or group of countries have the right to decide who should and who should not govern a sovereign state”. If one looks at the Syrian crisis from this angle many of Moscow’s previously inexplicable actions take on a new, clearer meaning.
“The eventually inevitable departure of Mr. Assad should not look like a regime change” – that is how I would describe the Kremlin’s attitude. I wonder if those sitting behind its tall red walls really think that one day this idea may become relevant for Russia.

*Konstantin von Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service’s Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He is a frequent lecturer at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, Royal College of Defense Studies in London and Wilton Park (UK), Uppsala and Lund Universities (Sweden). Queen Elizabeth II made him Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.