Is Russia at a dead end on Syria?

By Klaus Dahmann

Russia is sticking to its position on Syria, although its objective is unclear. Agreement within the United Nations Security Council seems impossible to broker, but diplomatic wrangling continues.

No harder sanctions against Bashar al-Assad's regime and certainly no military intervention in Syria: Instead, negotiate until a political solution has been found. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not want to back down from this position during talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.

"Not by a millimeter," said UN expert Jeff Laurenti of the re-elected Russian president's talks in Europe with Merkel and Hollande. "The divide is bigger than ever."

Merkel tried hard not to criticize the Russian leader openly during his visit to Berlin. After a warm welcome, both Merkel and Putin expressed concern about the danger of a civil war in Syria, agreeing that the UN peace plan must be pursued. Merkel made just one stray remark to the effect of their being a variety of ways in which the peace plan could be implemented.
Backed into a corner

People gather at a mass burial for the victims purportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla

Hollande took a more direct approach during Putin's visit in France, stressing that there could not be a solution to the Syrian conflict without Assad stepping down. Putin responded by saying that Russia neither supports nor opposes Assad's presidency. That position contrasts with the recent stance taken by Russia's Foreign Ministry, in which officials called last week's massacre in Houla "a well-planned action plotted by militants to hinder a political settlement to the crisis in Syria." That characterization squares with the Assad regime's own.

No open support for Assad, but none for the rebels either - for months, Russia has been maneuvering back and forth, trying unsuccessfully to broker a solution in Damascus while blocking all of the UN Security Council's attempts at sanctions.

"I have the impression that the Russians have become very stubborn, and they're getting backed into a dead end," Stefan Meister, an expert on Russia with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), said.
Lucrative military exports

There are many ways to explain Russia's hard-line stance on Syria. There are economic interests at stake, for example. Russian energy firms produce oil and gas in Syria. But the arms industry benefits in particular with Syria being its third most important export market.

When the topic of arms was brought up in Berlin, Putin answered that his country does not deliver any weapons to Syria that could be used in a civil war - an empty diplomatic flourish, Meister said: "If you're selling weapons systems in Syria, then no one in the Russian military or the Russian president can be sure they won't be used against the rebels. I would even go so far as to say that they will definitely be used against them," Meister said.

Margarete Klein of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs says that Moscow's geostrategic interests inform its approach far more than its economic interests. Syria is Moscow's last ally in the Middle East. In the Arab world, that means the country is "a clear counterbalance to American dominance in the region," Klein said.

Syria's port city Tartus is also the location of Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.
The wrong priorities?

If Assad's regime is overthrown, Russia's interests could be thrown into question in a number of ways, and that, says Stefan Meister, is Moscow's big dilemma.

"They have supported the Assad regime too long. The question is whether it's not too late now for Russia to back out," he said, noting that he doubts Russia will adopt the West's position on the Syria question. For him, one thing is clear, "Russia is betting on the wrong horse. It's only a question of time for Assad, and Russia will lose this partner at least in the middle term."

There are signs, however, that Russia is changing its tune.

"In Russia, the view is gradually taking hold that Assad perhaps cannot survive politically," Margarete Klein observed. She believes that Russia has recently shown less commitment to the person of Assad, instead backing up its stance on Syria by appealing to international law.

"Russia is out for a national solution that hasn't been brokered from abroad or imposed by way of military force," Klein said.

In other words, Russia is arguing that Syrians must determine their own fate.

Hope for the EU-Russia summit

How can the diplomatic knots get untied? Laurenti sees a glimmer of hope in the most recent proposal by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. She has argued in favor of letting the International Court of Justice in The Hague handle the recent case of the massacre in Houla.

Letting a non-partisan observer decide the case could be a possibility for putting pressure on Assad without sharpening sanctions or threatening to overthrow his government, Pillay said.

But it is questionable that Russia would support her proposal, particularly since Russia, like the USA and China, rejects the International Court of Justice.

The next opportunity for trying to find a way out of the dead end on the Syrian crisis will come on Sunday (June 3) at the EU-Russia joint summit in Saint Petersburg.