Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Russia kept Assad in power, but now it’s stuck with him

There has been speculation lately as to whether Russian president Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea were improvised, or whether they were the result of a longer-term strategic plan. A similar question can be asked of Russian behaviour in Syria. When Mr Putin decided to bolster the regime of President Bashar Al Assad in 2011, did he have an endgame in mind?

Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, apparently feels that the answer is no. A Lebanese politician who recently spoke to him says that Mr Fahmy’s impression from speaking to Russian officials was that Moscow is at an impasse in Syria. Mr Putin has blocked all efforts to undermine Mr Al Assad, but that does not mean he has been able to impose a solution of his own.

Take the remarks last week by the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, to the Saudi daily Al Hayat. Mr Bogdanov spoke about Mr Al Assad’s plan to seek re-election next July. For the Syrian leader, such an election would be a significant step in his efforts to survive politically and insist that he remains the legitimate president of Syria, one who will continue to lead the fight against so-called “terrorist groups”.

Mr Bogdanov said that the presidential election would not turn the page on the need for a political settlement to end the Syrian crisis. “The Syrian presidential election will not change anything,” he said, noting it would take place on a small part of Syrian territory and would not be recognised by the opposition. Moreover, he added, any agreement between the government and opposition might well open the door to a new election.

Mr Bogdanov continued: “A military solution is dangerous, harmful and difficult because of the sharp divisions within society.” Repeating what Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said last year, the deputy foreign minister said Syria faced a terrorist threat that had to be combated by the regime in conjunction with moderate groups in the opposition.

Mr Bogdanov was the official last year who said of a Syrian statement that Mr Al Assad would seek re-election in 2014 that it “makes the atmosphere heavier and does not make the situation calmer”. This had brought a heated response from his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, who insisted: “Nobody has the right to interfere and say he must run or he should not run.”

Mr Bogdanov is an old Middle East hand who served as a diplomat in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, was ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and headed the Middle East and North Africa Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry. His remarks were not improvised, and he is senior enough to be taken very seriously by the Syrian regime whenever he says something.

But there was also an element of powerlessness in his remarks. There is no change in Russian policy toward Syria. The Russians have probably concluded that Mr Al Assad will go ahead with a re-election, which they simply cannot prevent. However, they also realise that Syria is a giant headache for everyone, and that the Syrian president’s decision can only prolong the agony.

Moscow has been singularly incapable of putting forth a political plan to accompany its systematic obstruction of efforts at the United Nations to take decisions over Syria. It has armed Mr Al Assad, allowing his soldiers to engage in mass atrocities. When he used chemical weapons against his own population, breaking a commitment the Russians appear to have made to the Americans, they headed off an American military attack by making him surrender his chemical arsenal.

Three years since the beginning of the war, Russian behaviour has only perpetuated the military stalemate that Mr Bogdanov is lamenting today. Vladimir Putin has beaten his enemies to a draw in Syria, but he is no closer than the United States is to devising a consensual solution to the Syrian conflict, and Russia may pay for this politically down the road.

Mr Al Assad can take solace in the fact that the situation in Crimea makes an entente between Washington and Moscow over Syria much more difficult. Yet the Russians must also worry that their isolation reduces their effectiveness. It could mean that Mr Al Assad, seeing Russia’s vulnerability, will take whatever action he wants regardless of Russian preferences.

The violence in Syria, which the Russians have abetted, has made the Syrian president ever more incapable of making political concessions. The Alawite community, like Mr Al Assad’s inner circle, will not allow him to accept a deal that might expose them to retaliation. In that context, any voluntary transition away from Mr Al Assad is highly unlikely.

The Russians are stuck with the man they did everything to keep in power. For as long as Mr Al Assad remains in office there can be no political solution in Syria. So let the Russians resolve that dilemma, even as Mr Bogdanov repeats that the war in Syria can only end through a political arrangement.

There has been justified criticism directed against the Obama administration for its hesitant Syria policy. Russian policy, in contrast, has been unambiguous. But today the limits of the Russian approach are all too evident. If Russia has a strategy, it’s not immediately obvious how it will succeed.

Listening to Mr Bogdanov, the Syrians must sense his limitations. Yes, the Russian official will have helped discredit Mr Al A­ssad’s re-election. But he will also have played down its negative impact, in a way covering for the Syrian leader. Russia often seems as much Mr Al Assad’s hostage as he is theirs.

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