With all the high-level diplomatic visits to Moscow and accompanying news headlines, a casual observer might easily conclude that Russia holds the key to resolving the Syrian crisis, writes Samuel Charap, IISS senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia, in a New York Times op-ed. ‘But as the latest round of failed talks this weekend – this time between Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria – conclusively demonstrate, Russia will not be part of the solution on Syria.’
Charap says that some members of the international community continue to hope that Moscow can bring its influence on President Bashar al-Assad to bear on some sort of political transition. However, he points that the Kremlin has not only ‘fastidiously’ avoided joining the call for Assad to step down, but has also issued three UN Security Council vetoes during votes on Syria, and ‘bent over backward to water down the Geneva Communiqué calling for a peaceful transition of authority’.
Russia is not blind to the tragedy of the situation, but its approach to international intervention is very different from that of much of the rest of the international community, particularly the United States and the European Union. ‘Moscow does not believe the UN Security Council should be in the business of endorsing the removal of a sitting government,’ explains Charap. Indeed, it views many past US-led interventions as threatening to the stability of the international system and is not convinced that Washington’s motives in Syria are driven purely by humanitarian concerns. It even worries that giving its imprimatur to international action on Syria could potentially threaten ‘regime stability’ in Russia itself by creating a dangerous precedent that could eventually be used against it.
It wasn’t all about Syria in the Q&A at the end of the First Plenary Session – but it certainly led the discussion. Senator John McCain was critical was critical of US inaction: ‘In Syria … everything that people said would happen if we did not intervene has now happened because we have not intervened,’ he said. Fellow panellist Charles Ruppersberger, on the other hand, was optimistic about the role Russia could play not only in Syria but also in negotiations with Iran. ‘Sometimes negatives turn into positives and I think this relationship that we can work with Russia will help us,’ he said.
Participants also spoke about various wider regional and geopolitical risks generated by the Syrian conflict. The discussion provided a remarkable insight into the current situation and of US thinking on the processes taking place in the Middle East.
Energy issues were not forgotten. David Butters of Chatham House provocatively asking the panel: ‘How long are the American people prepared to continue to bankroll the security of Chinese oil supplies?’
Read the first part of Alexander Vysotsky’s account of the session: Day 1 at Manama: view from the floor
From Strategic Comments
The debate over external intervention in Syria has grown in recent weeks as the humanitarian toll of its revolution-turned-civil war rapidly mounts, atrocities by government forces multiply, pressure increases on Turkey and other neighbouring states, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad resorts to the use of air power.
So far, Western countries have exhibited little enthusiasm for military intervention, and Russia has blocked most possible actions by the United Nations. For the United States, President Barack Obama indicated in August that the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a clear red line. However, the crossing of other presumed red lines since the revolution began in March 2011 has not prompted any direct external intervention. The complexity of the crisis, its regional repercussions, the deadlock at the UN and the projected costs of any military operations have deterred other states. None has sought to make a decisive entry into the fray that could tip the balance of power.