View From the Global Tank: The Last Chance to Prevent a Mediterranean Somalia

© PhotoSimon Saradzhyan
Simon Saradzhyan - Sputnik International
The Syrian peace conference that Russia and America’s top diplomats have agreed to organize in the next few weeks might be the last chance for this Arab country’s warring factions to find a political solution to their conflict and prevent the sliding of their country into a failed state.

The Syrian peace conference that Russia and America’s top diplomats have agreed to organize in the next few weeks might be the last chance for this Arab country’s warring factions to find a political solution to their conflict and prevent the sliding of their country into a failed state.

© PhotoSimon Saradzhyan
Simon Saradzhyan - Sputnik International
Simon Saradzhyan

“Encouraging the stated intentions of the Syrian government and the opposition groups to find a political solution… Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov and I have agreed that … we [will] seek to convene an international conference as a follow-on to last summer’s Geneva conference,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart in Moscow on May 7.

It is worth recalling that some pundits dismissed last summer’s Geneva conference – at which the warring sides signed an agreement to form a transitional government together and prepare elections – as a dead horse as soon as it was over. And they proved to be right. Almost a year after the June event, the warring sides remain far from resolving their differences at a negotiating table.

But the question remains: Is there a viable alternative to a negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict, given the bloody stalemate on the ground and the reluctance of great powers to intervene?

The civil war in Syria has already led to more than 70,000 deaths, the alleged use of the sarin nerve agent and atrocities that are enough to make anyone’s hair stand on end, but neither side appears to be close to achieving a victory.

In the meantime, great powers keep pointing accusatory fingers at each other. Russian diplomats have accused Western governments of propping up the Syrian opposition, while Western diplomats have criticized Moscow for backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, both politically and materially.

But Russia’s long-term interest in Syria is not Assad per se. Rather it is a combination of foreign, economic and even domestic policy considerations that makes Moscow oppose an unconditional ouster of the Syrian strongman.

First of all, as stated many times before, Moscow fears that the rise of Sunni extremism will eventually spill over to Russia’s already volatile North Caucasus region, where Russian forces are fighting a low-intensity campaign against militant Islamists who have in the past been assisted by scores of jihadists from Arab countries. The last thing that the Kremlin needs is an Islamist victory in Syria followed by the departure of some of the “professional jihadists” who are currently fighting in that country – and who reportedly include dozens of natives of the North Caucasus – for Russia.

Russia’s ruling elite also abhors what it sees as unlawful regime changes, being concerned that the Arab Spring may eventually spread to the post-Soviet neighborhood.

The Kremlin also understands that the situation in Syria entails certain risks to Russia’s reputation. When hosting Kerry in Moscow, Russia’s top diplomat Lavrov took pains to “emphasize that we do not, we are not interested in the fate of certain persons.” But the reality is that many countries, including Russia’s partners in its post-Soviet integration projects, perceive the Assad “dynasty” as a long-time partner, if not ally of the Kremlin, for hosting a Russian military facility and procuring Russian arms. If Moscow abandons a friendly regime too easily, then it will set a precedent, making Russia’s existing and potential allies think twice about the wisdom of anchoring themselves to the Kremlin.

Assad’s Syria is one of the few Middle Eastern countries that has been spending hundreds of millions every year to buy products of Russia’s machine-building sector, without exports of which the Russian economy will be even more dependent on exports of raw materials. Syria has bought hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Russian arms, aircraft, and even passenger cars (which even Russian consumers are increasingly shunning.)

Just as importantly, Syria hosts Russia's sole naval facility outside the former Soviet Union, and that facility is not only important for the great power’s ability to show the flag in foreign seas, but also provides support for real naval operations, such as counter-piracy missions. Without the facility in Tartus, the Russian Navy’s plans to maintain a permanent presence in the Mediterranean Sea might be in doubt.

Therefore, if Assad is indeed doomed, then Russian leaders would rather play a role in an orderly transition of power to someone who would appreciate Russia’s role in that transition and accommodate Russia’s interests vis-à-vis Syria, than wake up to news of an Islamist victory in the Syrian civil war.

I am also sure that, though determined to get rid of Assad, Western governments would rather not have him succeeded by militant Islamists allied with Al-Qaeda.

So both Moscow and Washington have a genuine interest in a political resolution of the conflict. And together they have enough leverage with the warring sides to convince them to participate in a “Geneva 2.” The conflicting sides should take advantage of this opportunity, attend the conference and negotiate in earnest.

Whether they agree on a Yemen-style transition (in which the incumbent vice president replaced the outgoing head of state) or establish a dual leadership or settle for some other kind of power-sharing or power-transition scheme is immaterial. What is important is that the arrangement excludes the ascent of any kind of extremists to power and that the sides honor whatever they agree upon.

Otherwise, even if Western powers do get serious about a full-scale humanitarian military intervention, it might still prove impossible to prevent Syria from becoming the Somalia of the Mediterranean. And a failed Syria state with conflicting sides separated and policed by international force could prove to be the lesser of the potential evils.

A worse outcome could be the continuation of the civil war until one side eventually prevails. By then, however, there might be no Syrian state left to govern, with the country divided so deeply along religious and ethnic lines that it would prove impossible to glue it back together.

Simon Saradzhyan is a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. His research interests include international security, arms control,
counter-terrorism as well as political affairs in post-Soviet states and their relations with major outside powers. Prior to joining the Belfer Center in 2008 Saradzhyan had worked as deputy editor of the Moscow Times and a consultant for the United Nations and World Bank. Saradzhyan holds a graduate degree from the Harvard University.

The views expressed in this column are the author’s alone.

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