Russia is throwing in the towel on Syria
after an almost two-year long blaze of Cold
War-era rhetoric. It dug in tenaciously at the
United Nations Security Council holding its veto
card to block a Western intervention in Syria but
has been outmaneuvered on the ground and is being
presented with a fait accompli that the regime it
supported in Damascus is fast becoming a thing of
The Kremlin's special envoy for
Syria, Mikhail Bogdanov, admitted for the first
time on Thursday that the rebels are on a winning
spree and the momentum may coast them to outright
victory over the government's forces. Bogdanov
contemplated a rebel victory. Without mincing
words, he said, "One must look facts in the face.
Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian
opposition cannot be ruled out."
candid statement all but echoed the triumphant
the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) secretary-general Anders Fogh
Rasmussen - also on Thursday - that "the regime in
Damascus is approaching collapse".
Bogdanov's glasnost comes hardly
within three days of Foreign Minister Sergey
Lavrov's ominous warning that Russia "will not
allow the Libyan experience to be reproduced in
Arguably, Lavrov still has a point
insofar as there has indeed been no direct Western
intervention until now in Syria, and it seems
extremely unlikely that there will be one; in
fact, there may be no need for a Libya-like
intervention. The pattern could be similar to
Afghanistan in 2001, when the Northern Alliance
toppled the Taliban regime and thereafter the
Western boots appeared on the ground in the Hindu
Kush to take command of the successor regime.
Quintessentially, however, it is Libya all
over again. Yet another Middle Eastern regime that
showed strategic defiance of the Western world is
being overthrown and the world community is being
presented with no option but to acquiesce with it.
One can endlessly quibble over the
morality of it all or its legitimacy under
international law or even as to what happens in
such a world order to the Westphalian system
(which was also, ironically, born out of Europe's
blood-soaked history), but all that matters is
that it is happening all the time.
can be no pretensions anymore that it is the
idealism of the Arab Spring that brought about the
upheaval in Syria. The name of the game is
"geopolitics". The Western powers are meeting with
the military wing of the Syrian opposition
coalition in Turkey next week. Meanwhile, hundreds
of thousands of Syrians have been rendered
homeless or forced into exile in the turmoil. The
Syrian rebels no longer hide that Qatar, Saudi
Arabia and Turkey are promoting the war by
financing and equipping, and providing training,
sanctuaries, intelligence and logistics support.
Nor do they hide that hundreds of foreign
volunteers are fighting on their side.
Pretty much isolated But
Russian rhetoric continued relentlessly right up
to this week. As recently as Wednesday, Moscow
tore into the decision of United States President
Barack Obama to accord political recognition to
the newly formed Syrian opposition alliance.
I was somewhat surprised to learn
that the US, through its president, has
recognized the national coalition as the sole
legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
That is at odds with the agreements recorded in
the Geneva communique calling for an all-Syria
dialog between the country's government
representatives on the one hand and the
opposition on the other.
Interestingly, Bogdanov also changed
the tune on the sensitive issue of chemical
weapons. If only three days back Russia's security
boss, Nikolas Patrushev, ruled out any intention
by the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons,
Bogdanov now added a caveat that there is
nonetheless a serious problem, since the chemical
weapons may fall into the hands of the radical
groups among the Syrian rebels.
"The greatest danger is that parts of Syria
continue to fall under the control of the
opposition where extremists, terrorists, and
al-Qaeda have strong positions. That could have
very serious consequences."
Russia do now? Moscow is pretty much isolated on
the Syrian question and has virtually painted
itself into a corner. The point is, over a hundred
countries voiced their recognition of the newly
formed Syrian opposition alliance at the meeting
of the "Friends of Syria" in Morocco on Wednesday.
The only way out for Moscow now will be to
seek to strike a deal with the United States, and
Russian diplomats are certainly adept at this. To
Russia's comfort, the US also happens to be
grappling with a complex situation.
Syrian rebels have forced the pace of the regime
change in Damascus and have virtually taken the
initiative away from the hands of the democratic
opposition to the regime. The US scrambled (with
help from Qatar) somehow to cobble together the
recently formed opposition alliance, but, as Josef
Stalin once wondered about the Pope in the
Vatican, this entity is toothless since it has no
control over the fighters, whereas muscle power is
the crucial asset when anarchy prevails. The
parallel with Afghanistan breaks down at this
point, although the need of a "Bonn conference"
(December 2001) to hoist a new regime remains.
In the bargain, there is real danger that
radical groups amongst the rebel fighters may take
undue advantage. This possibility worries
Washington too - it already faces a searing
experience in Libya. In turn, this "shared
concern" provides a window of opportunity for
Russian diplomats. Moscow would do well to amplify
a convergence of interests with Washington over
But a "trade-off" over Syria in the
best traditions of the Russian-American tango may
be impossible to swing because Russia will be
negotiating from a position of disadvantage. Put
differently, Moscow's need to work with the US is
doubtless far greater today than Washington's need
for Russian help - and the Americans would know
A strategic setback
However, Moscow holds one trump card,
namely, the specter of the stockpiles of chemical
weapons in Syria that haunts international
security if that country were to unravel. It
stands to reason that Russian intelligence would
have a fair idea as regards the location of
Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles. This
intelligence becomes a "tradable" commodity in the
rapidly evolving situation.
have done some shrewd kite-flying on Thursday when
he openly began speculating publicly on this
explosive issue, which is on everyone's mind.
"Everyone is afraid of that, including our
American partners," he said, adding that militants
were already gaining control of Syrian military
arsenals on the ground, including anti-aircraft
That could also happen to
chemical weapon stockpiles, Bogdanov said. He
added, "This has already happened in Aleppo with
the seizure of a plant manufacturing chemical
components that can be used for terrorist
Russia can hope to play on the
Manichean fears in Washington. The US decision to
brand the Nusra Front as an al-Qaeda group
underscores that the Obama administration keeps
one eye on Libya. Again, the US hasn't yet taken
the final plunge to arm the rebel fighters. In
fact, state department spokesperson Victoria
Nuland has since clarified that Obama's
announcement on Tuesday was "a political step, not
a legal step" and is aimed at giving "a boost to
those working for a political transition in Syria"
and "those planning a future that is democratic,
that is pluralistic, that is unified".
Therefore, what emerges, on balance, is
that there could still be significant convergence
between the US and Russia, emanating out of the
two countries' "common concerns" as to what
happens in the morrow of a regime change in Syria,
and this convergence may well gain critical mass
on a political track in the coming days or weeks.
From the US viewpoint, the best outcome in
Syria would have been a military takeover, which
would leave the state structures intact - as in
Egypt - and open the door to expansion of American
influence in Damascus to steer the country toward
an agreeable democratic outcome. Russia wields big
influence over the Syrian military.
lies the basis of some optimism for Russian
diplomacy. The Obama administration has just
invited the head of the Syrian opposition
coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, to visit Washington for
consultations. Moscow also made an overture this
week to Qatar, the master-blaster in Syria, with
the announcement that its energy company Gazprom
will open an office in Doha.
to be seen is whether at the end of it all, Russia
manages to retain its naval base in Tartus, which
is its only presence outside the Black Sea. But
the current state of US-Russia relations would
preclude that from happening. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton alleged only last week that a
process of "re-Sovietization" is under way in
Eurasia and the US is gearing up to thwart it. She
was referring to Russia's projects of the Customs
Union and the Eurasian Union.
Vladimir Putin felt provoked to react sharply that
Clinton was speaking "nonsense". Washington has
just imposed humiliating restrictions on visits by
Russian officials implicated in human rights
All in all, therefore, it is
highly probable that Washington will terminate the
Russian naval presence in Tartus in the post-Assad
phase, and may think of evicting Russia altogether
from the Eastern Mediterranean. The US is already
blocking Russia's bid to join hands with Israel in
developing the massive Leviathan gas fields.
In any case, Turkey also wants Russia out
of the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, regime change
in Syria becomes a serious strategic setback for
Russia. No doubt, Moscow's ability to influence
the historic transformation of the Middle East has
been seriously impaired.
M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in
the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments
included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait
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