A Russian Victory Over Syria?

Posted: October 5, 2013 in The Long Telegram

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov votes in favor of a resolution eradicating Syria's chemical arsenal during a Security Council meeting amid the 68th U.N. General Assembly in New York

A significant number of American pundits and politicians have been sounding off in the last few weeks about the deal struck between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concerning Syria, on 14 September. That agreement, and the process leading up to it, provoked adulation from global media but condemnation from western sources, for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whose seizure of an off-hand proposal of Mr Kerry’s appears to have averted western intervention in the two year old conflict.  America’s media in particular, across the whole spectrum excoriated Mr Putin for his defence of Bashar Al Assad, denounced his background and character as a “KGB thug”, and bitterly lamented the fact he had outwitted Barack Obama to gain a “victory” over Syria.  In its view Mr Putin has subjected America to a public humiliation on the international stage.  Although there is something uniquely and annoyingly American about the fact the US looks at a successful plan to mitigate this crisis as a defeat, largely because it wasn’t American in origin.

What kind of victory have the Russians won though, really? Those of you who read my last entry several weeks ago will be aware of the origins of the Kremlin’s opposition to military action against Syria.  Mr Putin appears to believe he has reinforced the principal of non-intervention and derailed assistance to the perceived Islamic extremists in the Syrian opposition. All of this rests on the UN resolution passed in late September.  The delicate balance provided by resolution 2118, however, has the ability to come crashing down with remarkable speed. If the Syrian regime stalls, or fails to comply with the resolution, Russia will be in a very difficult position. Having supported action it will be forced to either reluctantly approve punitive measures against its ally, or risk a much more significant discrediting of the UN, which it is usually at pains to defend as a body deserving respect.

Alternatively, Russia may present evidence that the regime of Bashar Al Assad is not responsible for any delay or inability to disarm. Evidence is often subjective in international relations and no one could really disprove the claim if Russia makes it.  The odds would then rise significantly that western powers would return to the option of a military strike to preserve their, now tarnished, prestige.  It’s not as if the US has pledged to refrain from intervention altogether and although resolution 2118 does not invoke article VII of the UN charter (authorising military force), the US has shown it has few qualms about operating outside the global body. In this case there is little Mr Putin could do to forestall it, having already played the card of disarmament.  Despite warnings from some commentators, Russian warships will not fire on US or European aircraft, the same way US forces were not prepared to intervene to save Mikhail Saakashvili from Russian tanks in 2008.  In short Putin is bluffing and if his bluff is called, Russia’s reputation stands to take a real beating.

Which bring us to the topic of Russia’s real victory.  The real victory here seems to be a PR victory.  This is appropriate for a country in which a favourite political expression is всё ето пиар (Everything is PR).  Mr Putin’s and Russia’s reputation in general has emerged enhanced, although this likely only applies in authoritarian and quasi-democratic regimes, where the fear of western interference or intervention is strong.  It is doubtful Russia has improved its reputation in western capitals, where they will accuse it of defending a brutal regime, even as they back away from their threats of intervention.  Mr Putin has also re-introduced Russia as an international mediator, although I would argue only in situations where Russia has a direct interest.  Russia is hardly a regular international mediator of consequence, even in situations where it has direct interests on its own borders, such as the odyssey of North Korean nuclear disarmament. Fears by conservative US commentators that this has diminished America in the Middle East and given Russia a diplomatic foothold are wide of the mark.  It’s not as if Russia has enhanced its reputation or leverage with the states vital states of the Arab League that were quietly encouraging western intervention, or with Iran which has experienced its fickle friendship before.

Russia has won a victory, good PR equals enhanced prestige and prestige is said to be everything in international relations.  Good PR, however, depends on how long the impression lasts and can be fleeting especially if you end up in a protracted conflict from which there appears no escape (read Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq). Russia’s prestige victory then is the stay of action until (I’m feeling cynical) the Syrian regime reneges on or, interminably delays, its commitment to destroy its chemical and biological arsenal.  I wonder, however, if this insertion of themselves by the Russians into the process will prove to be a net gain.  Russia has now accepted the outcome of the Syrian situation as their joint responsibility with America and the Syrian regime.

This victory has placed Russian prestige in the hands of Bashar Al Assad and his willingness to destroy his chemical and biological weapons.  He might comply. Indeed, a case could be made that having invested so much in the Syrian regime, Russia has an incentive to ensure it does comply.  But the Syrian regime is locked in a life or death struggle with anti-Assad rebels and its chemical weapons give it a decisive advantage I don’t think it will be eager to give up; at least not until the military advantage has swung distinctly in its favour.  Mr Putin may have won a temporary PR victory, but the consequences from its potential to backfire could do heavier damage to Russia’s prestige in the long run.

  1. AB says:

    Well argued, but I don’t think the real victory was a PR victory (although that is a victory), but rather a very real geopolitical victory with real geopolitical results. Russia’s interest in this is so much more than PR — Mujahideen from the North Caucasus have been fighting in the region, they have returned to Dagestan as well as several other post-Soviet states (the recent arrest of three fighters in Kyrgyzstan who had just returned from Syria and were in the process of preparing a terror attack) as well as Russia. Some of the most radical fighters are from the North Caucasus, causing real concerns about that area heating up more than it already is.

    From my perspective, Russia supports Al-Assad not for PR (although that doesn’t hurt) or to stick his thumb in Obama’s eye (although that too doesn’t hurt), but because it fears the radicalisation that occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In addition to the power vacuum that could be filled with a radical Islamic agenda, the simple fact that instability very close to Russia’s most unstable region is not something Moscow wants. Moscow wants to crush dissent in the region, not provide a training ground and recruitment centre for radicals a few hundred kilometres away from Makhachkala. While I don’t think anyone likes Al-Assad, Russia prefers him in power to the messiness that would result in the case of his defeat.

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