April 27, 2012 | NOW Lebanon

Russia’s Strategic Clarity in Syria

April 27, 2012 | NOW Lebanon

Russia’s Strategic Clarity in Syria

Russian foreign policy scored another victory last week with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2043, which established a supervision mission in Syria for an initial 90-day period. In other words, Russia bought three more months for the Assad regime to go on killing with impunity.

Still, the debate continues in the US about that ever-elusive “shift” in the Russians’ position toward the Assad regime and what it would take to “get them on board.” All this speculation notwithstanding, Moscow has been steadily pursuing a clear objective in Syria: preserving the core Alawite rule and its current strategic alignment. The Kremlin’s policy, then, is the reflection of something that’s been sorely lacking in the White House: strategic clarity.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, summarized Moscow’s rationale in an interview last month with Kommersant FM: “The struggle is going on in the entire region, and if the current regime in Syria were to fall, there will be a strong desire, and massive pressure, on the part of some countries in the region to establish a Sunni regime in Syria. I have no doubt about that.”

Lavrov’s comments drew a wave of sharp criticism from the Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. The message the Russian foreign minister had sent was hardly lost on Washington’s Sunni allies. Not only was Moscow openly airing its contempt for the regional Sunni powers, but it was also drawing a strategic line in the sand, and making it quite clear where it stood: Russia wants Assad’s Alawite-led regime to continue as its only foothold in the region.

In light of the regional power configuration, as far as the Saudis and the Turks were concerned, Russia’s support for Assad meant protecting the pro-Iranian regional axis to which they are opposed.

Naturally, these allies and clients of the US look to Washington to counterbalance the Russian push, especially since the breaking of the Iranian axis is an obvious shared interest. However, to their dismay, what they’ve seen is the opposite of what they expected. The Obama administration’s policy has been to not only widen the Russian margin of maneuver, but also to effectively empower the Kremlin’s position.
Take for instance how the US handled the Friends of Syria forum, which Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey saw as a venue to bypass Russian obstructionism. Instead, the administration transplanted Moscow’s veto from the Security Council onto the Friends of Syria group by making clear that any initiative had to go through the Russian gateway.

To add insult to injury, the Russians continue to accuse the members of the group of sabotaging the Kofi Annan plan, and of incitement, because of their support for Assad’s opponents. Moscow has even dubbed as “provocation” any encouragement of peaceful protests. Moreover, it’s rather obvious that the Kremlin would like very much to see the Friends of Syria group completely dissolved in order to position itself as the sole arbiter for Syria.

But beyond pondering the baffling tactics of US policy, one must take a step back and ask: What should be the US objective in Syria?

In strategic terms, the answer always was obvious – to deal a crippling blow to the Iranian network in the region by hastening a transfer of power away from Assad and his Alawite clique to a government that empowers the Sunni majority. That’s certainly how Washington’s allies view it. It’s certainly what the Russians know, and are actively seeking to thwart.

However, in stark contrast with Moscow’s basic strategic calculus, the Obama administration’s goal has been to prevent a slippery slope to intervention in Syria.

What is more, the administration has given hints that its Syria policy is a subcategory of its unsuccessful “reset” policy with Russia. However, it’s clear that in the context of the Middle East, not only is this policy a failure, but also it’s premised on a fundamental misreading of Russian interests and what anchors its position in the region. The Russian foreign minister’s comment elucidated this fact and spoke to Moscow’s stance vis-à-vis the region’s strategic alignments—even if it was articulated in the bare sectarian terms of establishing a Sunni regime in Syria.

What about Washington? The Obama administration has been reassuring its regional allies that it will contain Iranian influence. However, Washington’s credibility has taken a serious blow in Syria. When presented with the opportunity to roll back Iran’s reach in the Levant, the White House is balking. Worse still, by working in concert with Russia and endorsing its preferred initiatives, it is effectively, if unwittingly, shielding Iran’s assets.

In the end, Lavrov’s comments are useful for the unfiltered clarity they provide in order to properly define the US’s strategic objective in Syria. This goal obviously cannot be achieved with, much less through, Russia, as it runs directly counter to its interests.

Russia and Iran see in continued Alawite rule a continuity of policy and alignments. The US, therefore, must ensure the end of this rule and the establishment of an order that empowers Syria’s Sunnis. It must pursue this aim as assertively and as explicitly as Russia (and Iran) pursues its diametrically opposed objective.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


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