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Russian confidence growing in its vision for ending Syrian war

Russia’s new tone of leadership on Syria is driven by momentum on the battlefield for Bashir al-Assad’s forces.

Russia believes that its long-held vision of how to achieve peace in civil war-torn Syria has at last become possible due to a shifting balance of forces in the war and changing perceptions in the West, experts say.

In Russia’s view, peace would come through a negotiated settlement between the Bashar al-Assad regime and at least major elements of the anti-Assad rebels. 

Newly assertive in advance of an upcoming peace conference to be jointly sponsored by the US and Russia, Moscow is insisting that rebel factions who come to the meeting must do so “without preconditions,” meaning no demands for Mr. Assad’s removal. It is also advocating that Syria’s main regional ally, Iran, should be included in the talks along with other players like Saudi Arabia.

“It’s important to put the main things first, and in this sense I am convinced that timing is the last thing that should be decided, when the most important things are agreed,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday in Sochi, answering a journalist’s question about when the conference will take place.

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“The main thing is to ensure the agreement of opposition groups to participate in the conference without preliminary conditions,” and not attempt to set “unrealistic” conditions, he said. “There is no doubt that it is obligatory to invite all neighbors of Syria without exception. Iran, as you know, is a neighbor of Syria.”

Many analysts say that Russia’s new tone of leadership on the issue comes from the feeling that it’s been vindicated by signs that Assad’s forces have fought the rebels to a standstill, and haveeven begun taking the offensive in some key areas. Russia has long argued that the West viewed the Syrian conflict simplistically, as democracy-versus-dictatorship, while realities on the ground decreed from the start that the fight would be long, bloody, and perhaps impossible to solve by military means.

“The West seems to have thought that they could get [President Vladimir] Putin to pressure Assad into leaving, and all would be well,” says Georgy Mirsky, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

“That’s complete nonsense. Assad will stay till the very end, and he has many resources to do so. Meanwhile, the opposition is increasingly being taken over by radical Islamists, who look like the only people capable of defeating Assad. But these are the followers of bin Laden. Are the Americans really ready to go on supporting them?” he asks.

Experts say official Moscow has noted a subtle change of tone in the West recently, especially since Secretary of State John Kerry met with Mr. Putin two weeks ago and agreed to stage the peace conference. For one thing, they say, President Barack Obama has backed off talk of “red lines” that might trigger US intervention in Syria. In a press conference last week with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr. Obama said that getting directly involved in the conflict is “not going to be something that the United States does by itself.”

In another newly self-confident message, clearly aimed at the West, Moscow has let it be known that it will complete deliveries of advanced weapons systems to Assad’s forces. They include thehypersonic Yakhont anti-shipping missile – some of which have reportedly been delivered – which could threaten warships up to 200 miles off Syria’s coast. Moscow has also indicated that it will complete a contract to supply sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft systems, which are capable of shooting down modern fighter aircraft at great distances and altitudes. In combination, the two weapons could deeply complicate any Western effort to repeat NATO’s limited intervention in Libya, which led to the downfall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

In statements to the media last week Mr. Lavrov insisted the arms contracts were old, signed before Syria’s civil war began, for “defensive arms” only, and completely legal under international law. At a meeting in Sochi with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week he reportedlyrebuffed all appeals to halt the deal.

“Contracts have to be fulfilled. Lavrov said these are not new deals, they were signed in the past,” says Vladimir Sotnikov, an expert with the Center for International Security at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

“Other countries are supplying weapons [to both sides] in Syria. Why is Russia singled out? The Assad regime is the legitimate government of Syria, there is no other. And Syria has a right to defend itself, especially since there have already been Israeli air raids against it,” he says.

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But Russia did halt weapons sales – including a deal to supply S-300 missiles – to Iran in 2010 following entreaties by the US and Israel to do so. And Moscow voluntarily gave up nearly $5 billion in weapons contracts with Mr. Qaddafi after abstaining on a UN Security Council resolution to authorize NATO’s use of force in Libya the next year.

During the cold war the Soviet Union regularly provided its client states with advanced weaponry to counter Western interests. Long and brutal proxy wars were fought in Vietnam, the Middle East, Angola, and other places.

Experts say those days are gone and, despite some appearances, Putin’s Russia is not attempting to return to Soviet-style geopolitics.

“By publicly revealing these missile deliveries, Russia is saying to the West that this peace conference is the last chance to attain a negotiated settlement. If the conference fails, which seems quite possible, then the Russian message to the West is that if you step up arms deliveries to the rebels, our aid to Assad will be increased too,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.

“In cold war times it was clear why these superpower standoffs took place. But we no longer live in a bipolar world, and Russia does not seek these days to challenge US hegemony in any systematic way,” he says.

“For Russia, at this point, the key is to try to reverse that post-cold war trend which aims to legitimize Western interventions to settle local conflicts. There are a lot of reasons why Russia feels this way; perhaps our leaders fear that, eventually, such precedents might even be used against us. But non-intervention is now a basic Russian principle…

“So Russia’s actions around Syria today can best be understood as Moscow’s way of saying ‘No’. International action to remove Assad is not going to happen. It’s not the way forward.”