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‘G7 plus one’? Isolated Russia holds line on Syria

The G8 summit ended today with Russia far from agreement with the West over how to resolve the Syrian civil war. Russian experts say the rift is probably permanent.

Russia‘s fundamental differences with the West over how to seek peace in war-torn Syria has leftMoscow isolated and this year’s summit of the Group of Eight industrial democracies in some disarray – creating a situation that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper bluntly described as “G7 plus one.”

And though a sour-faced President Vladimir Putinsoldiered his way through the two-day meeting at a golf resort in Northern Ireland – he avoided the G8 altogether last year – some Russian experts say that Moscow may not care much if its stubbornness over the shape of a Syrian peace settlement isolates it, or even compromises the G8 membership that former Russian President Boris Yeltsin worked so hard to attain in 1997.

“We’re a new member of this club and we have our own views, which we will express,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma’s international affairs committee.

“Just because the other seven have a different view doesn’t mean we should change ours. It’s not the last word. For example, when the G20 meets, Russia is not alone. There are lots of other countries that share our views, even if they’re not in the G8,” he says.

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Though both Moscow and Washington still officially support the idea of a joint US-Russia peace conference, in which each would shepherd their proxies to the negotiating table in Geneva before August to hammer out a settlement, it was the mutual admission of key differences that seemed to speak loudest at a press conference following a face-to-face meeting between President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama on Monday.

“Our opinions do not coincide, but all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria, to stop the growth of victims, and to solve the situation peacefully, including by bringing the parties to the negotiations table in Geneva,” said Mr. Putin. “We agreed to push the parties to the negotiations table.”

Mr. Obama’s take: “With respect to Syria, we do have differing perspectives on the problem, but we share an interest in reducing the violence; securing chemical weapons and ensuring that they’re neither used nor are they subject to proliferation; and that we want to try to resolve the issue through political means, if possible.”

The fate of Assad

The key disagreement that neither leader spelled out concerns the fate of Syria’s embattled leader, Bashar al-Assad. The US, its Arab allies, and the Syrian rebels want guarantees that Mr. Assad will be removed as a precondition for any talks on the way forward in Syria. The Russians, who have blocked every attempt over the past two years to sanction Syria or bring international pressure to bear on Assad, insist that peace must be negotiated between the actual warring parties.

In an interview with a Kuwaiti news agency Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Moscow has done its part in persuading the Assad regime to come to the table. He insisted that Putin and US Secretary of State John Kerry had agreed at a May 7 Kremlin meetingthat there would be no preconditions – such as Assad’s removal – set before the peace conference begins.

“We worked hard with the [Syrian government], and convinced them to participate in the peace conference and name a negotiating team, which will be led by Deputy Prime Minister Walid Muallem,” Mr. Lavrov said.

“The main task before us is to seat representatives of the government and opponents of the regime at a negotiating table with the prospect of reaching agreement to start a political process based on broad national dialogue,” he added.

Lavrov complained that the West, particularly the US, have not done their part in compelling the fractious Syrian rebels to come, without preconditions, to Geneva. He admitted that it’s “a much more difficult” problem.

Many Russian Middle East experts say it’s more like a hopeless problem.

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“The Geneva-2 peace conference is a pipe dream,” says Vladimir Sazhin, an analyst at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.

“The Syrian opposition is totally divided. There is no front line, the battle goes on within each village, and every head of an armed group thinks of himself as a national leader…. Assad’s regime has at least what’s left of a central state and a regular army, so why should anybody think he would just agree to go away?” Mr. Sazhin says.

“There are so many different forces inside Syria, and so many interested outside parties. They’re all of different size, and have differing goals. It will be real progress indeed if anyone can make them sit down together,” he adds.

Other obstacles

Other disagreements have flared in recent days, including Russia’s insistence that Western claims that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons are “fabricated.”

On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Lukashevich told journalists that the idea of imposing a Libya-style no-fly zone over Syria is strictly illegal. “I think [Russia] fundamentally will not allow this scenario,” he told journalists.

Russia, and the USSR before it, maintained a strong client-state relationship with Syria under the two-generational Assad regime, and many critics have argued that Moscow’s staunch defense of Assad is rooted in fear of losing the estimated $5 billion in arms contracts that are in the pipeline with Damascus, the use of a naval supply station at Tartus – Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union – and the political influence that flows from having a close partner in the Arab world.

But the Russians insist that it’s not about material issues, nor are they wedded to Assad. They argue that it’s the West that doesn’t know what it’s doing in trying to impose a simplistic “dictatorship versus democracy” template upon Syria’s complicated increasingly tribal and sectarian civil war, and that previous Western efforts to intervene – as in Libya – have only succeeded in sowing chaos and fomenting jihadi blowback across the region.

The end of G8?

The G8 summit ended Tuesday with a final communique that papered over the main differences between Russia and the organization’s other members by avoiding any mention of Assad’s fate. But some Russian experts say the rift is probably permanent, regardless of what happens in Syria, because the Russia of Vladimir Putin is rapidly drawing away from the West and adopting views and behaviors that are basically incompatible with G8 membership.

“This G8 summit will probably go down in history as the meeting that revived the old formula of ‘G7 plus one,’ just as the Canadian prime minister remarked,” says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.

When Russian joined the G7 in 1997, it was admitted on the basis of its democratic aspirations and not because it was an economic equal, says Mr. Strokan. The recipe of ‘G7 plus one’ referred to Russia only being admitted to the political deliberations of the group. Since Putin came to power, Russia has experienced a dramatic economic revival and, for several years now, people have referred to the organization simply as the G8.

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“Now the expression 7+1 is creeping back, not because of any Russian economic weakness, but because Western leaders no longer have any illusions about Russia being a democracy. The Syria issue is just a litmus test that reveals to all that Russia and the West have fundamentally differing views of the world,” he adds.