The swarm of initiatives to resolve the situation in Syria does not mean increased chances of warding off civil war, but rather reflects the depth of the rift between West and East, and reduced Arab leadership in deciding the fate of this important country. The prime victim of the return of the Cold War between Russia and the United States is the Syrian people, first and foremost. The Arab region is not dear to the heart of Vladimir, the Prime Minister and soon-to-be President of Russia, , who considers it to be only an arena for trade-offs with the United States and Europe. Iran is a different issue in Russian/Putin’s considerations, and this might begin to explain Moscow’s readiness to turn against the League of Arab States and make enemies of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Iran represents a valuable asset in the considerations of the Russian-Chinese alliance, particularly in confronting the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO), be this ideologically, at the intelligence level, in terms of oil interests, or within the framework of the world order - the old one as well as the new.
Indeed, if US President Barack Obama’s doctrine has been based on the concept of containment through enticement, then Vladimir Putin’s doctrine is to reshuffle cards and revive Soviet might in the Middle East, the last place where Russian arrogance can still be exercised. It is the first round of a contest sought by Putin’s Moscow against Obama’s Washington and Europe, which is on the rise in establishing the new world order. Indeed, Russia and China are not willing to accept rocking the foundation of the old world order, based on upholding the sovereignty of ruling regimes, and not the sovereignty of their peoples. Thus the first round is taking place in the Arab region, where “the people want” has become the prevailing slogan for overthrowing the sovereignty of regimes.
The world order that has been agreed upon for decades was established on the basis of the non-infringement of sovereignty. At the onset, the principle was that the sovereignty of countries should not be infringed upon. However, in practice, the tradition has been to not infringe on the sovereignty of ruling regimes, even when such regimes would take countries hostage and hijack their sovereignty in order to remain in power.
This world order has been seriously disrupted by the Arab revolutions that erupted last year, and which led to the fall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen under the slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime”. This is the slogan the Syrian people raise today, but Russia, along with China, has decided that Damascus is where the march of “the people want” should stop. There are numerous reasons for this.
Some of the reasons are rooted in Moscow’s and Beijing’s fear from the principle and slogan of “the people want” reaching their home soil. Indeed, some form of this slogan is being raised today in Russia, and was raised not long ago in China, before it was suppressed. And whatever encourages people to defy the authorities in power frightens the current Communist rule in China – in the name of the people – as it does the bygone Communist rule in Russia, which its rulers today still pine for in their depths, most of them being relics from the Soviet era.
Another reason, connected to domestic considerations, is the rise of Islamists to power in the Arab region following the revolutions. Russia and China both have doubts regarding the intentions of the Obama Administration and European governments that lie behind their propensity to embrace the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, under the pretext that it now represents moderation, in comparison to the Salafists. The end-result is that there is something strange about an alliance between the Islamists and the West in shaping the “new regional order in the Middle East”. The mere fact of reshaping the new regional order while excluding Russia and China, and in partnership between the West and the Islamists, has angered and infuriated Russia. There is also the fact that the rise of Islamists in the Middle East could spread to Central Asia – then it would not be unlikely for them to rise to power in the Muslim republics in Russia’s backyard, where Russia would therefore find itself surrounded. It would then not be unlikely for this to lead to a Muslim uprising within China and within Russia, where the numbers of Muslims are not to be underestimated.
Russia has from the start looked at Syria from the perspective of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and Muslim extremism growing stronger there. Its diplomacy has made clear these concerns inside as well as outside of the Security Council, but this has been met from the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, France and Germany with the reply: “what proof do you have?” This is one of the main reasons for disagreement between the Russian-Chinese stance and Western stances. The West has wanted to pretend that the Syrian issue was devoid of the Islamist element as viewed by Russia, while the East has become increasingly angry at the West’s dismissal of its concerns with the Islamists.
Of course, there is the background of the Libyan issue. Russia and China felt that they were the victims of deception by NATO, which interpreted the Security Council resolution as granting it the power to carry out military operations. In the wake of this, Moscow and Beijing decided that they would not be taken lightly and insulted ever again after this.
This hubris coincided with fears on the part of Russia and China from Western hegemony, under American leadership and perhaps with Arab partners. The climate of the Cold War returned at the beginning with the issue of Libya, and it has become ever more inflamed after the crisis of Syria. Vladimir Putin has revived the 1990s with an entrenched and rigid mentality and a Stalinist political discourse. He has decided that his best interests require him to confront the United States, so that he may say to the Russian people: I represent pride. Moreover, the electoral period in the United States has provided Putin with an opportunity to defy Obama, while knowing with certainty that the US President does not want to go to war. This indeed is the most important card Putin holds: the fact that Obama will not go to war in Syria, that he will not go to war in Iran, and that it is out of the question for him to escalate against Russia or China – he, the advocate of peace.
Putin has found in the Syrian issue an outlet to defy others and restore his standing in the Middle East. He has found that complying with Western pressures comes at a high price for Russia, because Moscow cannot afford to lose its prestige and its image with Iran and Syria, the two countries that are resisting American influence and who represent two important assets for Russia’s standing in the Middle East. He has thus decided that he would not be satisfied with partnership in managing the Syrian issue, within the framework of a process of political transition in which Moscow’s part would be unexceptional. He has decided that wanted to monopolize any political process in Syria, and to dictate standards and conditions by himself. Putin took this decision to a new juncture when he decided that monopoly over Syria’s fate would be Russian, not Arab, American or European. This is why he dealt a blow to the League of Arab States and to the GCC countries by vetoing a draft resolution at the Security Council that had been based on giving the Arab League and Qatar the keys to the process of political transition in Syria. Such a blow was amplified when he ensured China’s veto alongside his own. With this he sent a stern and important message signifying that China considers its strategic interest to lie with Russia, not with the West or the Arabs.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who is in turn a rehabilitated former Soviet, headed to Damascus as a friend of the regime, having in mind to lead the process of political transition in Syria. The double Russian-Chinese veto gave momentum to the security solution announced by the Syrian government in the words of its Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. Realistically, the double veto sent a determined message to the Syrian opposition, both civilian and military, that there is no way for the opposition to be militarily victorious, it has no available means to remove the regime militarily, and it has no choice but to head towards a compromise led by Russia, one whose bottom line is that the regime is here to stay.
Lavrov’s initiative was aimed at convincing the opposition and those who support it – or dictate its actions – that there is no way to change the regime, and that they have no choice but to turn to Russia’s mediation by eliminating their options on the battlefield. In the international arena, Russian strategy has decided to dictate to all those concerned that the only compromise lies in a process led by Russia.
Moscow paid no heed to accusations that, by making use of the veto and by its violent initiative, it has sped up the descent to civil war in Syria. It worried little about the violence of the blow it had dealt to the Arabs and in particular to Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassim, who heads the Arab League’s Ministerial Committee on Syria. This is why Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin made sure to hold a press conference to deny what was being circulated about him threatening Bin Jassim with “wiping Qatar off the map”. Yet this did not negate the clear impression left by Russian diplomacy that it was not taking Qatari diplomacy seriously, especially in a climate of reviving the Cold War between the major powers. Russia also left the impression that, in its mind, the issue of Syria was not a separate one, but rather an Iranian issue par excellence.
Russia’s confrontation with the GCC countries, the League of Arab States and Western countries is not devoid of risks. Similarly, China, which broke Russia’s isolation at the Security Council, is taking risks. Indeed, the Syrian issue for the countries of the GCC is also an Iranian one par excellence. And thus Russia and China taking sides so clearly and openly has brought the GCC countries back to the strategy table, in order to decide what challenges and what choices they have ahead of them. These countries today are not the countries of yesteryear, which would throw themselves at the margins of one of the two poles of the Cold War, when Russia was a Soviet Union to be taken into account. Indeed, Russia today is trying to regain some of the remnants of its glory through a Cold War it would wage in the Middle East.
And then there is Turkey, which in turn put forward its initiative on the basis of holding an international conference that would not leave to Russia alone – with China behind it – the power to issue dictates in the region. It is not clear whether Turkey will join forces with NATO countries in providing military support that is insufficient to a now armed opposition. And this is where the situation in Syria is becoming increasingly dangerous, especially if the Syrian opposition’s disagreements were to persist and if it were to appear that the militarization of the opposition serves the interests of groups that seek power, not reform. This is why clarifying the identity of the Syrian opposition has become an urgent matter.
The battle for a new regional order and a new world order is the first of its kind, in view of the place and time, yet the Palestinian issue will return to the battle if Russia were to begin trying to compensate for the decline of its standing and prestige among Arab peoples, by outbidding on the issue of the Palestinian cause. It has started by saying that the two-state solution was impossible and that the GCC countries are busy with Iran, not with Palestine. And it may decide to destroy the Quartet on the Middle East if the Cold War were to become inflamed.
The writer is a columnist at Dar Al Hayat, where this article was first published on Feb 10, 2012.