Boxed-in over Syria

Calling for a negotiated solution has long been a central plank of Russian policy on Syria. So long as peace talks were not in prospect this was an easy position to adopt. It sounded reasonable and portrayed Russia – despite being one of the Assad regime’s key international backers – as a potential mediator.

But now that the Geneva II process is officially under way (albeit in a halting fashion), Russia is being put to the test.

Russia’s stance is driven more by self-esteem than any particular fondness for Assad and his regime. Its economic and military interests in Syria are a less important factor than its desire to be seen as an influential player on the world stage. For that reason above all others, it has sought to ensure that its stance on the Syrian conflict cannot be ignored.

So far, it has succeeded in this by acting on the diplomatic front as both a wrecker and a facilitator – blocking Security Council resolutions but also assisting in the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons.

In the Geneva talks, as with chemical weapons, Russia has assumed the role of an indispensable facilitator capable of pulling strings in Damascus. But in order to maintain the key position it will have to demonstrate that it is actually capable of facilitating things. It will not only have to ensure that the talks don’t collapse but also show that they have some prospect of leading to a solution eventually.

The chances of success are slim and at present the United States seems content to see Russia in the front seat. At a media briefing last week, a senior US official complemented Russia on its efforts to get a political process started and praised the Russian ambassador for “trying very hard” to facilitate humanitarian access in Syria.

Russia, in turn, is now playing down expectations regarding its influence in Damascus. “Russia can do nothing alone,” foreign minister Sergai Lavrov said last week. “I can assure you that we are putting daily pressure on the Syrian government,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation and to try to convince a government that is waging a war to make gestures, this is a very difficult task.”

The Americans may well have decided to sit back and wait for Russian efforts to stall, thus forcing Moscow to reconsider its stance on Assad’s presidency. If Russia really wants to achieve a breakthrough it will have to abandon him eventually. The question is which it values more: the Assad regime or its own international status.

For Russia and the Geneva talks, the elephant in the room is paragraph 9 of the 2012 Geneva communiqué which Russia accepted at the time. This outlines “key steps” for a political transition in Syria, including:

“The establishment of a transitional governing body that can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place, with the transitional governing body exercising full executive powers. It could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”

This doesn’t specifically mention Assad but the phrase “mutual consent” is crucial. In practice, there is no likelihood of the opposition accepting a transitional government that included him.
Needless to say, Russia doesn’t currently interpret paragraph 9 as meaning that Assad will have to step down and foreign minister Lavrov still seems to be hoping that the opposition can be persuaded to accept him. That might sound improbable given all that has happened over the last three years but Lavrov is seeking to redefine opposition to include “opposition” elements that Assad approves of.

“The internal opposition should be invited to Geneva 2,” Lavrov said on Saturday. “They say it is being loyal to the government. I think there is nothing wrong with them being loyal to the country.” 

Another looming problem for Russia concerns chemical weapons. Russia gained a good deal of kudos by helping to defuse the international crisis over the sarin attacks near Damascus last August. A little over-eagerly, perhaps, it then emerged as the unofficial guarantor of Syria’s chemical disarmament.

All Syria’s chemical weapons are supposed to be removed and destroyed by June 30 but so far, according to the US, only 4% have been removed and Russia is coming under pressure to make Syria speed up the process.

The Syrian government appears mainly responsible for the delays – probably as a deliberate tactic to acquire leverage in other areas. If Syria persists this could once again put Russia on the spot.

Security Council resolution 2118 – which Russia agree to last September – threatens measures under Chapter Seven of the UN charter “in the event of non-compliance”. Invoking Chapter Seven can include the use of force, though sanctions are another option.
Russia could of course block any action with its veto as it has done in the past, but that would undermine its new role as a facilitator and push it back into “wrecker” mode. It would also signal that Russia is unable to secure Syria’s compliance on important matters, indicating that it has less influence in Damascus than it would like the world to believe.

Russia clearly doesn’t like the reference to Chapter Seven in the UN resolution or paragraph 9 of the Geneva communiqué but it accepted both of them at the time and to that extent it is now boxed in.  

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 3 February 2014