Why Russia won't cut Syria loose
Amidst the horror that continues to plague Syria, a glimmer of hope emerged last week as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced they will try to bring together the Syrian state and its opponents by convening an international peace conference.
In principle, negotiations are the right way to go. Had talks taken place earlier, the bloodshed, which has now claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, could have been vastly reduced. The only way it can be stopped is if there are some compromises, and this will only happen when the warring sides start talking in earnest. Yet reports that Russia is sending advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria are a reminder that Moscow's commitment to the process remains an unpredictable wild card.
In preparing for the discussions, a division of labor appears to have been set -- the Americans are trying to persuade the rebels to take part, while Russia is pressing the al-Assad regime. And there are some promising signs on both fronts. According to Kerry, Salim Idriss -- chief of staff for the main opposition Free Syrian Army -- has expressed strong interest in negotiations, while reports suggest Lavrov has received a list of negotiators from the Syrian government.
But actually getting both sides to the negotiating table -- and ensuring they are genuinely committed to the process -- will be no easy task. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has demanded that the rebels disarm before any discussions occur, while rebel leaders are worried about losing credibility. After all, having promised revolution, rebel supporters, many of whom have lost loved ones, are unlikely to accept an outcome that could leave the regime -- or something resembling it -- in place.
There is, though, another factor standing in the way of a dialogue, one harder to grasp but no less important.
Russia is, by far, Syria's largest arms supplier. Between 2007 and 2010, almost $5 billion was made by Russian firms selling weapons to Syria. This has continued since the conflict began more than two years ago, with Russia pledging to veto any effort by the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian state. What is more, roughly three million people are employed in the defense industry, according to an RIA Novosti report in 2009, which it noted represents about a fifth of the manufacturing jobs in Russia. With this in mind, a casual observer might be somewhat suspicious of whether Russia's heart is really in Lavrov's pledge to halt arms transfers.
Still, there had been genuine cause for optimism that Russia really was serious about getting the two sides to the table. Late last week, reports emerged that the planned delivery of advanced surface-to-air missile systems, which are said to be made up of six launchers and close to 150 missiles, would not go ahead. The decision to halt the delivery reportedly followed concerns expressed by Israel to the United States about the issue. But the move, we have been offered a clue to Russian motives.
In the past, Russia has cancelled sales of arms and military hardware to the al-Assad regime in order to ease Tel Aviv's concerns. The decision to do so could be interpreted as a desire to boost ties with a relatively stable and more reliable Middle Eastern state now that Syria and Iran, Russia's other major ally in the region, are beset by problems.
In addition, Russia no doubt fears that radical Sunni elements of the Syrian opposition -- the al-Nusra Front is a good example -- might inspire Islamist rebels in its restive republic of Chechnya. This aligns its interests with Israel, where worries about what might come after al-Assad have guided Tel Aviv's policy towards the rebellion against a state that has engaged in anti-Israel rhetoric and whose ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon have made it a threat. Israel's recent bombing raid against Syrian targets underscores this point.
The problem for Israel is that Russia has generally resumed arming Syria each time Israeli concerns have eased, because Russia's leadership still sees much to lose economically and strategically from cutting Syria loose, a reality borne out by the cruise missile news. Ultimately, Russia sees Syria as another test case for the West's appetite for intervention, and views the danger of U.S. involvement as a direct threat to its own interests.
All this suggests that despite Moscow's talk of a conference next month, Russia and Syria will find a way to be friends again. Putin needs Israel, but he needs al-Assad more. For the Syrian people, this means that their misery will continue -- and possibly intensify in the coming weeks and months.