Drawing by Niyaz Karim
Another look at Syria by Konstantin von Eggert
By Konstantin von Eggert
Is Russia changing its position on Syria? I have been asked
this question again and again since my recent interview with Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov on Kommersant FM radio in Moscow. Although murmurs about the
behavior of Bashar Assad’s regime have been heard from officials in Moscow
before, Russia’s diplomat-in-chief became the first to articulate what can only
be described as displeasure with Damascus.
“We absolutely do not justify the Syrian leadership,” Lavrov told me. “We
consider that the Syrian leadership reacted incorrectly to the rise of
nonviolent protest, that despite the promises that were made in response to our
numerous appeals, they are making many mistakes, and those steps being made in
the proper direction are happening late.”
In the same breath the minister repeated Russia’s previously stated position on
the Syrian question. Making Assad’s resignation a precondition for any
political settlement is useless and will only encourage him to cling to power
more; the Syrian opposition is an unknown entity with even less influence; the
Sunni regimes of the Persian Gulf are obsessed with overthrowing the Alawite
government in Syria.
Lavrov completes the argument with this: Syrian rebels are not just peaceful
people who took up arms to defend their families and homes. He claims there is
a sizeable al-Qaeda presence within the rebel ranks. And the Syrian regime’s
claim that it is fighting Islamists is worth paying attention to.
However, the most interesting part of the interview was Lavrov’s musings on a
possible settlement of the Syrian conflict. He thinks the model used in Yemen
to make President Ali Abdullah Saleh leave the office he occupied for more than
30 years and install a more-or-less legitimate government could be adapted to
Syria’s calamitous situation.
In Yemen, representatives of the opposition, tribal chiefs (which is frequently
one and the same thing there), representatives of Saleh and officials from the
Gulf states sat down to agree on the president’s departure terms, which
included guarantees of personal immunity and a transition period before new
It appears that Moscow is starting to seriously consider the possibility of
Assad’s early departure, as it is aware that the rivers of blood he spilled
will prevent any return to normalcy as long as he and his family are in power.
A roundtable framework would help Russia negotiate to preserve its business and
military interests in Syria, including the now-unclear future of the Tartus
naval station on the Mediterranean coast. But the Kremlin’s other, and no less
pressing, concern would be to make any settlement look different than regime
This was the principal motivation behind Moscow’s adamant stand on Syria in the
United Nations Security Council, and its demonstrative support of the Assad
regime. The course of the war in Libya, which Russia effectively sanctioned by
abstaining when a “no fly zone” resolution was passed, angered the Russian
leadership, especially president-elect Vladimir Putin.
Putin has said that he believes Russia was conned into accepting regime change by the West, and has vowed not to let it happen again. For the Kremlin, Assad’s fate is secondary to the principle that organizations such as NATO, and even the Unted Nations itself, cannot decide who is going to rule sovereign countries. And although Russia has opposed regime change disguised as humanitarian intervention since the Balkan wars, there is also a new self-interest at work. There is no exact parallel between the Arab Spring and the protest movement in Russia, but Putin and the country’s ruling class are mindful of any international precedents that could, at some future date, legitimize outside interference.
Konstantin von Eggert is a commentator and host for Kommersant FM, Russia’s first 24-hour news radio station. He was a diplomatic correspondent for Russian daily Izvestia and later served as the editor-in-chief of the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau.
End the Syrian crisis our way by Yevgeny Shestakov
By Yevgeny Shestakov
Western public opinion is
outraged that Moscow and Beijing are refusing to accept a resolution
condemning the Assad regime’s war crimes. The
western media, citing unnamed security service sources, claim the Russian elite
has commercial interests in Syria,
but this has been denied by the Russian Foreign Ministry and there is no
evidence of any. So, before condemning Russia’s
position, consider its real reasons for taking this line.
has repeatedly declared that it is not specifically defending Syrian president
Bashar al-Assad. But talk about Syrian civilians taking up arms is a myth
created by the Syrian opposition. Addressing the US Congress recently,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed doubt about supplying US arms to
Syrian rebels, as they have groups close to al-Qaeda in their ranks.
According to repeated leaks from intelligence services, militants from Libya and Yemen are fighting Assad. Russia’s permanent ambassador to the UN, Vitaly
Churkin, told the Security Council that Syrian opposition groups were being
trained in Libya.
Significantly, the Libyan leadership did not deny this. So claims that the
Syrian army has shot unarmed civilians are not credible. As Western leaders
rightly point out, the aim of international intervention is to stop the
bloodshed in Syria.
fully supports this goal. But it does not consider it helpful to include in the
resolution the question of who started the bloodshed in Syria, since
that discussion will not help end the violence. In recent months, Syrian cities
under Assad’s control have seen a series of suicide bombings, which have the
hallmarks of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. These explosions have claimed
dozens of civilian lives. Russia
suggests the future UN Security Council resolution condemns the violence and
calls for a ceasefire from both sides – Damascus
and the opposition. Moscow and Beijing want sanctions imposed if the
ceasefire is violated.
During the Russian foreign minister’s visit to the headquarters of the Arab
League in Egypt, five main
provisions were formulated that could form the basis of a future Syria
resolution. They are an end to violence by all sides; an impartial monitoring
mechanism; no military interference; free access to
humanitarian relief for all Syrians; and firm
support for the mission of the UN-Arab League envoy
Kofi Annan. These provisions could provide a platform for a clear roadmap to a
implement reforms that will help reveal the Syrian people’s opinion as to who
should rule the country. The Syrian opposition should take an active part in
Russia maintains that any
attempt to sideline the UN Security Council and intervene in Syria runs
counter to international law. Such actions threaten the post-Second World War
international institutions designed to ensure global stability. Russia is not
against introducing changes in the system of international laws and developing
new ones that would allow the intervention of the international community if
some countries violate fundamental human rights. But these terms need to be
established in advance.
When Israel publicly declares that it is planning to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the world must recognize that a future war can be stopped only through the collective efforts of the UN Security Council. Any steps that bypass the Security Council diminish its authority, undermine its credibility and reduce the confidence of its members. This will seriously harm its ability to make decisions in the future.
Yevgeny Shestakov is editor of the international politics desk at Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
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