Monday, January 30, 2012


"This week, as the Arab League urged Mr Assad to hand power to a national unity government, Moscow said it would sell Syria 36 fighter jets for $550m. Russia’s staunch support of Mr Assad is driven partly by a determination to avoid a repeat of what happened in Libya, when Moscow abstained from a UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone that contributed to the demise of Muammer Gaddafi, the country’s ruler.

The result was a diplomatic and commercial fiasco for Russia, with the new Libyan government vowing to punish Russian, and Chinese, companies for their government’s support of the former regime.

But the Kremlin said its mistake was not that it backed the wrong horse in Gaddafi – rather that it did not back him hard enough. This time they mean to defend their man.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, who made the decision to abstain in the UN vote on Libya in March, was heavily criticised when Nato warplanes went on the offensive and the operation, originally designed to protect civilians, became “a classic regime change scenario”, according to Fedor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow- based foreign policy journal.

“The decision to abstain is widely seen in Russia as a mistake. No one wants to put themselves in that position again,” he said.

Veto-wielding Russia has quashed any similar attempt to get a UN resolution on Syria, and seems certain to do so again, despite Arab League pressure.

“From the standpoint of strategy, it doesn’t seem to me that military intervention would be a successful step,” Mikhail Margelov, presidential envoy to Africa, who has been the Kremlin’s point man in Middle East diplomacy, told Russian television. “ISyria today needs additional efforts in order to get a dialogue started.”

In an attempt to pre-empt talk of armed intervention, Mr Margelov said the Arab League’s measures were working. “Monitors are a stabilising factor in Syria,” he insisted, despite Tuesday’s withdrawal of monitors from Gulf Co-operation Council nations from the league’s mission to Syria.

Russian analysts also believe the west is naive in allowing itself to be drawn into yet another Arab revolution with unclear consequences. “The Russian side doesn’t buy the argument about a popular uprising,” Mr Lukyanov said. “Instead, the Syrian crisis is seen as a geopolitical battle between the Sunni Arab monarchies and Iran [for whom Syria is an important ally],” he added.

“The western idea to crush every dictatorship and open a Pandora’s box across the Middle East is just madness,” said Sergei Markov, deputy director of the Plekhanov Economic Academy in Moscow and former member of parliament, who accused US and its Nato allies of “deception” in their imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya.

Russia’s decision once again to back what seems like a lost cause may be rooted in its past. Mr Assad is one of Russia’s last allies in the Middle East: Hafez, his father, was a long-time Soviet client and the relationship has been passed down a generation.

“Russia’s presence in the Middle East is a legacy of Soviet times,” Mr Lukyanov said. “We don’t think the Mideast’s new rulers will need Russia, whatever our position was when they came to power. The only chance we have to continue a relationship and to earn dividends from it is if the old regimes stay.”'

Charles Clover, "Moscow's ties with Syria grow Stronger." The Financial Times. 24 January 2012, in

"Seen from the Soviet point of view, the demise of militant Arab nationalism and the decline of goodwill toward the Soviet Union has meant that those regimes which still remain loyal to the Soviet position must be nurtured much more carefully. In the 1950's and 1960's Moscow could afford to make mistakes (and it made many of them), first of all because if it had troubles with one regime it could concentrate on another, and secondly because it was the only source of economic, military and political support for the anti-Western policies almost universally adopted by Arab leaders at that time."

Karen Dawisha, "The U.S.S.R. in the Middle East: Superpower in Eclipse?" Foreign Affairs. (Winter 1982/1983), p. 444.

The grandstanding by the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate over the crisis in Syria is au fond the end result of Moskva's endeavor to remain an 'independent player', id. est., a Great Power in the old sense, in the Near and Middle East. In reality of course, both during the Cold War and certainly at present, the Russian 'jeu' in the region is of the sideshow variety. Per se, Moskva has no real interests to speak of in the region. Even the alleged worth of the Syrian naval base in the Mediterranean is in point of fact questionable, when once considers how weak and second-rate Russia's Black Sea fleet is at present. Sans a first-class naval power projection capability from the Black Sea, then any bases in the Mediterranean sink into the military equivalent of hot air. Which is not to say of course, that there might very well indeed be good reasons to object to American-Nato-Turkish-Sunni Arab military intervention in Syria. Merely that as far as one can make out, the true reason that Russia refuses to pass a Security Council resolution on Syria, has little to do with such reasoning. From a more realistic perspective, Mosvka's positioning, unless it is for purposes of obtaining some type of gage, from someone or other (Saudi Arabia? the United States? Turkey?), makes very little sense. Aside from nostalgia for the Near Eastern diplomacy of Sovietskaya Vlast, Russia has nothing concrete at stake in the Syrian affair. And threats to veto or even vetoing Security Council resolutions will not convince anyone that Moskva is a major actor in the region. It is most certainly not. And as the Dawisha article of almost thirty years ago, shows, even at the height of the Cold War, Russia's Near Eastern position was not all that it seemed to be. As for the future, nor will it be, unless and until Russia's economic and military foundations are strengthened infinitely more than what they are at present. And of course, when Russia's domestic political scene becomes much more stable than what it is at present. Besides these very concrete variables, the duumvirate's diplomatic posturing is nothing more than a very damp squib.


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