West struggles to understand Russia’s Syria stance

Peter Apps writes: Western states trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are increasingly struggling to deal with, or even understand, Russia’s dogged support for him.

Arms deals, Russia’s naval base in Tartus and fear of Islamist militancy in a post-Assad Syria are all held up as potential explanations. But Russian officials and some others say that misses the wider point.

They say Moscow’s opposition to foreign-backed “regime change” reflects a fundamental disagreement with the West over sovereignty and the rights of states to deal with domestic instability by whatever means necessary.

“The Russian position can be explained by their hostility to any interference in the internal affairs of a country, especially in the current climate, because at home they have things to be worried about,” says Denis Bauchard, a former diplomat and expert on the Middle East at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI).

Time and time again, Western officials have confidently briefed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was on the brink of dumping his long-term ally, only to be disappointed.

On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and counterparts from other major powers are due to meet in Geneva.

Once again, diplomats from several Western countries were predicting a shift. For the first time, they said, Russia had agreed with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan and its requirement for a gradual transition of power.

But late on Thursday, it emerged that Russia had put forward amendments that the United States, Britain and France said were unacceptable.

At a Group of 20 summit in Mexico this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron was embarrassed after suggesting that Putin had agreed Assad should go, only to have Putin himself dismiss the idea.

French President Francois Hollande talked at length about the importance of winning Russia over, but had an awkward press conference with Putin in May having clearly failed to do so.

For every argument Hollande made before the assembled media, Putin had a counterargument. When Hollande asked if Russia would take Assad in exile, Putin replied that the Assad family had been invited to Paris much more often than to Moscow. While it is not clear that was true, Hollande still had to squirm.

Putin said the ousting of leaders did not necessarily lead to peace. He cited the case of Libya, where Moscow believes it was tricked by the West into supporting military intervention.

“Has it become safer there? Where are we moving? Is there an answer?” he asked.

Western states are still hoping that a series of military reverses for Assad will begin to tip the balance and force Putin to drop him. But it may not be that easy.

A death toll in Syria of well over 10,000 seems unlikely on its own to change Putin’s mind. Estimates vary widely of the number of dead in Chechnya – a conflict in which he was involved as prime minister and president – but often exceed 100,000. [Continue reading…]

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One thought on “West struggles to understand Russia’s Syria stance

  1. Lysander

    Is it really a mystery, or is “The West” just playing dumb? The goal of the west is to destroy Syria as a nation state because it acts in concert with Iran and Hezbollah as a check on US/Israeli power. They do not care if there is lots of violence, or even mass murder, against Christians, Druze or Aliwites or non-Wahabist Sunnis. Talking about what a terrible guy Bashar is, is only meant to distract from that fact. Whenever they pretend that Russia has been won over, it is not because they misunderstood what Russia has told them, it is because they want to create the public impression that the Syrian government is loosing support. To do that, they lie. All the time, without shame or embarrassment.

    OTOH, what Russia wants is first, to preserve Syria as a nation state. This protects the religious minorities, including the Orthodox Christian minority, which the Russian Orthodox Church wants to see protected. The ROC is a serious political force in Russia and Putin does not want to alienate it.

    Second, Russia has good reason to fear the spread of Saudi inspired Salafism. Actually, we all do, but the west always thinks it could use them as a tool.

    Third, the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine is a huge threat to Russia and the rest of the world. The idea that western powers have a right to intervene militarily every time a couple of people get together and wave a sign is nothing but old style western colonialism in 21st century garb.

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