By blocking the U.S.-backed resolution condemning Syrian leadership, Russia is reinforcing its diplomatic clout, defending its interests in the region and threatening to put the West in an embarrassing position if it decides to invade without sanction of the United Nations Security Council, Russian foreign policy analysts said on Monday.
“That’s a perfectly clever move, we’re protecting our own interests,” said Vladimir Bartenev, a global affairs analyst with the Moscow State University.
By backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is patching an embarrassing breach in its otherwise consistent foreign policy even while protecting its sole ally in the Middle East, Bartenev said.
Public support for Assad is still strong despite public protests – a fact that Moscow is keenly aware of – while regime change is likely to bring radical Islamists to power like it is happening after the civil war in Libya last year, pundits said.
Therefore, Russia is pushing for reconciliation between Assad and the opposition while leaving the Western powers with the option of launching a military intervention in Syria without UN sanction, which they are reluctant to do, they said.
On Saturday, Moscow and China blocked a Security Council resolution on Syria, which was backed by 13 other members of the global body.
The resolution denounced violence in the country, where more than 5,000 were killed since last March in clashes between the government forces and opponents of Assad, according to the United Nations. Western countries accuse official Damascus of suppressing political dissent. The Syrian government blames the insurgency on unspecified terrorists allegedly supported by the United States.
Russia has already blocked a Security Council resolution on Syria in October, saying its real goal was not restoring peace, but sanctioning a military intervention to overthrow al-Assad, like in Libya last year. Longtime Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in a months-long civil war in which the opposition received military backing from Western countries. Outside military involvement was sanctioned by the Security Council, including Russia, which abstained from vetoing it.
Al-Assad’s Syria is widely seen by the West and the Arab governments as a major ally of Iran, with its ambitions to be regional superpower and perceived aspirations to develop nuclear weapons.
The Russo-Chinese veto sparked a furious backlash from Western diplomats over the weekend, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing it as a “travesty,” while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said she was “disgusted” by the veto. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the foreign reaction “hysterical” on Monday.
“It is unfortunate that the [resolution’s] co-authors decided to put it to a vote urgently, although we had asked them to delay it for several days so that we could discuss the situation after [Russian Foreign Intelligence Service head] Mikhail Fradkov and I visited Damascus on February 7,” Lavrov said. He and Fradkov are coming to Syria for talks with al-Assad.
“We’re not against the global community. Between them, Russia and China represent almost a third of it right there,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Middle East Institute think-tank.
Both he and Bartenev said Russia was “played for fools” during the Libyan crisis, gaining nothing in exchange for not blocking the Western attack on Gaddafi.
Now Moscow is sending a signal to its partners worldwide, indicating it would not be giving up on its strategic interests, Bartenev said.
Syria, which has had close ties with Russia since tsarist times, remains Moscow’s only ally in the Middle East, analysts said.
Russia’s sole naval base on the Mediterranean is located in the Syrian port of Tartus, at which a group of Russian Navy vessels called in January.
Russia also selling arms to Syria, though all analysts agreed that the contracts, while worth several billions of dollars, are only a minor factor in global politics.
Giving up on arms contracts with Syria would have meant losing the entire Arab market, head of Russia’s state-controlled arms exporter Rostekhnologii, Sergei Chemezov, said late last month.
More important for Moscow is the fear of Islamists coming to power in Syria, like it is happening in Libya, where unrest continues despite toppling Gaddafi, said Boris Dolgov of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Opposition forces in Syria are a mixed bunch, ranging from secular activists to army deserters to terrorist-backed groups, but it’s the latter who are likely to come out on top in the end, said Satanovsky of the Middle East Institute.
If Assad is ousted, “Al-Qaida will come to power, and they won’t thank us for helping them,” Satanovsky said.
The West can support the rebels bypassing the Security Council if the conflict continues to escalate, as was indicated by a recent bombardment of the city of Homs by government forces, where at least 200 were killed, according to numerous media reports, Bartenev said.
Satanovsky said such an intervention would be illegitimate in the eyes of the global community, similar to a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“One of Russia’s objectives is to paint the West as idiots ignoring the United Nations,” Bartenev said.
However, Dolgov said the situation was not a throwback to Cold War times, but rather a pragmatic standoff over a single, if important, international issue.
It’s up to the West to come up with incentives to make Moscow change its mind, Satanovsky said.
“We’re following a conservative path of quietly protecting our interests,” he said. “This is what [British PM] Margaret Thatcher or [U.S. President] Ronald Reagan would have done, too.”
GETTING IRAN IN THE PICTURE
A possible intervention would be a prelude to a standoff with Iran, Syria’s main ally, Satanovsky said.
Tensions over Iran have been escalating lately, mainly due to Tehran’s ongoing nuclear program. Europe has imposed economic sanctions while Israel and the United States hinted at the possibility of airstrike at Iranian nuclear objects; Iran threatened to retaliate by blocking the Strait of Hormuz, a major artery in the global oil transportation system.
A military conflict involving Iran is highly possible, and a strong Syria would have been inconvenient for the West in this case, Dolgov said.
“Russia wants to maintain the status quo…and in this case, we’re doing everything right,” he said.
The situation on the ground in Syria is trickier than the media paint it, with a large part of the population still supporting Assad, said Dolgov.
“The regime cannot be toppled from within, it has support of the masses,” said Dolgov, who traveled to Syria last month.