What options do Moscow and Tehran have, after the leaderships of Russia and Iran entered the eye of the storm in the wake of the grave loss they have both suffered in Syria? Iran’s leadership went too far in placing conditions and prevaricating on the nuclear issue, as well as in its insistence on its right to regional hegemony, and lost. Russia’s leadership behaved hysterically with emotions of national pride, and went too far in prolonging the Syrian crisis in order to strengthen its demands and its position in the region and in negotiations – its assets have thus become weaker and it has begun to show signs of strategic loss.
Which will then be the way to rectify matters for Moscow and Tehran, respectively; confrontation or anticipation? And if it really is not too late to redress their policies, is there still a serious margin for striking a ‘Grand Bargain’, or has the new regional order set off at a faster pace, leaving behind an angry Russian Bear and the mullahs of Tehran on alert?
Russia’s leadership made an exceptional mistake last week when it used its veto at the Security Council for the third time, to prevent the international community from warning the regime in Damascus of persisting in its blood-spattered defiance. China’s veto, which has for the third time accompanied that of Russia, is of no less weight at the Security Council, but China is not as violent in its stances towards Syria as Russia is.
The dual veto reflects the strong bid to preserving a relationship of strategic alliance between the two (former or current) Communist powers, especially in the face of the spread of Western power – particularly that of the United States – to historically and strategically significant regions rich in oil and gas. Yet there is a clear difference between the role played by Russia in Syria and in the rest of the Middle East on the one hand, and China’s stance of distancing itself from such a role and sufficing itself with supporting Russia at the Security Council on the other. Certainly, the harm that accompanies the Chinese veto is no lesser than that coupled with the Russian one. They have both obstructed the Security Council’s ability to bear its responsibilities and contributed to prolonging Syria’s suffering and increasing the number of its victims by thousands and thousands.
China’s veto may be a veto of courtesy towards Russia or a veto of alliance against the West, but China is not involved in Syria and Iran – neither positively nor negatively – the way Russia is. Beijing will not get implicated further, especially after the collapse of efforts towards the Grand Bargain as a result of Russian hysteria, which started in the wake of the massive security bombing in Damascus last week and took shape in the Russian decision to wield the veto, instead of seizing this rare opportunity for Moscow to be at the forefront of sponsoring the change taking place in Syria and at the core of the partnership to shape the new regional order.
Many had wagered on the wisdom of Russia’s leadership and on the fact that it would seize the right opportunities for its interests, standing and position in the Middle East. Many had believed such prolongation to be part of the art of negotiation to obtain more – at the bilateral level with the United States and at the regional level with the countries of the region. And many had assumed that Moscow would not waste such a rare opportunity for it to lead in shaping the alternative regime in Damascus – or at least to radically participate in shaping such an alternative.
Under the banner of patriotic feeling and national pride, the emotions of Russian diplomacy rose up and overcame logic, which Moscow would have done better to resort to, however great its anger, rightfully or wrongfully. Such a veto, charged with anger and weighed down by emotion and pride, has also done away with joint United Nations and Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan. From the beginning, Annan has been behaving in a manner that invites Russia’s approval, in the hope of obtaining its cooperation in reaching a peaceful solution in Syria that would bring together the five permanent members of the Security Council. Moscow’s veto at the Security Council undermined Kofi Annan’s mission, and the man himself, who has emerged as a loser - his name synonymous with stonewalling, caution and greater care for the interests of Russia and Iran than for the fate of Syria.
Kofi Annan is responsible for himself and for the policy and the strategy he chose to carry out the mission entrusted him by the United Nations and the League of Arab States. Perhaps he believes that his efforts were thwarted not by Russia’s veto, but rather as a result of the stances taken by the Arabs, the West and Turkey.
He is perhaps convinced that, had he succeeded at formally introducing the role played by the Islamic Republic of Iran at the negotiating table over the future of Syria, things would not have gotten to where they are now. Yet he has perhaps reached the conclusion instead, that he had been wrong in the vision he had of his mission, as in his wager on the sincerity of the regime in Damascus and his belief that his signature method of cautious navigation would be possible to follow amid the rising number of Syrian casualties – in the thousands.
It may not be too late to follow a corrective course of action that would repair the reputation that now hounds Kofi Annan. Yet this would require radical reassessment in the man’s mind that would take into account Russia’s reduced weight in the equation, and Iran’s reduced role in the region. Indeed, Kofi Annan too has lost a rare opportunity to become a main player in shaping the new regional order. He has aligned himself with the losing front – at least so far – and in doing so has aroused repulsion not just among a large part of the Syrian people, but also among Arab countries that carry significant weight, particularly within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
To be sure, the equation has changed after the third Russian-Chinese veto. The United States has drastically lowered any trust it had in the sincerity of Russia’s intentions, and in a peaceful solution based on Russian pressures on President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power through a process for political transition. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not closed the door to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, nor in the face of Bashar Al-Assad. She spoke of a “safe haven” in a language signifying that it is not too late, leaving a margin for correction, yet one with a fast-narrowing timeframe.
Similarly, Arab countries have not locked the door, but have rather taken the initiative for the first time to provide safe passage for the Syrian President and his family to leave power and the country. Yet all of this indicates that there is absolutely no way for what the leaderships of Russia, Iran and Syria had sought, i.e. for Assad to remain in power until the end of the process of political transition. It is too late. The discussion now falls under his stepping down as an essential part of the process of handing over power in Syria.
This is coupled with a strategic decision, at the level of the region and the West, to give blessing to arming the opposition. The United States and European countries will not arm the opposition, but they will increase their help to it in terms of intelligence. The Russian-Chinese veto has forced Washington to embrace the option of giving its blessing to armament. Indeed, the veto has done away with what had been agreed upon in Geneva, including the consensus over not militarizing the conflict.
Sergey Lavrov is speaking two languages after this mistaken veto. He is speaking a customary wooden language accompanied by talk about the fact that militarization and armament would mean unleashing Islamic terrorism in the Syrian arena, with al-Qaeda at the forefront. On the other hand, he is leaving the door open to the possibility of Moscow correcting its mistakes and providing the West and the Arabs with a role that would make it impossible to dispense with it – the role of a true sponsor of what will come after Bashar al-Assad steps down from power, and of the features of the alternative regime in Damascus.
Military and diplomatic defections within families traditionally loyal to the Assad regime, such as the Tlass family, have in turn initiated yet another qualitative development on the Syrian scene. Moscow must surely be watching with great concern – watching its opportunity to be part of the new regional order slip away, instead of standing outside of it accused of letting down its peoples, and of prolonging conflicts that have led to feeding Islamic extremism and to introducing al-Qaeda fighters into the Syrian arena through the gateway of Iraq.
Furthermore, what Moscow feared and was right to emphasize its opposition to, on the basis of its legitimate interests, has now become likelier due to the stances taken by Russia itself. For instance, the militarization of the conflict in Syria has no doubt come as a result of Russia’s defiant stances.
At the regional level, Russia suffered a grave loss as it watched the formation of a de facto alliance between Arab countries, including the GCC, and the countries of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO), including Turkey. Egypt has become the model for consensus and agreement among those players, on the basis of coexistence and mutual accountability between the army and the Islamists in power.
The United States seems like a partner of the peoples’ ambitions, while it is from its own point of view adapting to a new reality that is making it use “moderate Islam” to combat Islamic extremism, thereby ensuring a foothold for itself with those in power. It seems to sympathize with the peoples and the democratic transformations taking place, while ensuring its long-term interests at the same time.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, partner of the regime in Syria and of Russia, has suffered a truly tremendous loss after the Russian-Chinese veto. Washington has finally agreed to what it had resisted for a long time: the adoption of a strategy to break Tehran’s back in Syria in order to besiege it and strip it of regional ambitions that include a strategic outpost on the Mediterranean Sea. Tehran is losing because it had invested a great deal -financially and militarily- in Syria in order to gain such a strategic location.
Now, the Islamic Republic of Iran has become surrounded from the inside by its opposition and from the outside through a painful Western oil embargo, or in the links to its zones of regional influence. At the nuclear level, it is at the mercy of advanced sabotage technology which could spare Israel or the United States the need for military operations to bomb specific nuclear sites in Iran. It stands at the threshold of the outbreak of an Iranian uprising after the end of the Syrian one.
Iraq, which used to be considered its backyard, is showing signs of realism and of restoring its standing in the Arab World. It is soundly interpreting the meaning of deepening strategic choices between the countries of the GCC and NATO, as well as the repercussions of this on Iran’s fate and on dwarfing it at the regional level. Today, after the Russian-Chinese veto, Iran has no role to play in the negotiations over the future of Syria, as Moscow had hoped and as Kofi Annan wanted.
Iran’s threats must be taken seriously, but it is not necessary to assume that Tehran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, will automatically behave in a manner that would serve Tehran but drastically harm the party itself within Lebanon, in case of Israel being provoked into carrying out a military operation against there. Yet there are those who would exclude such a probability and assert that there is a kind of de facto understanding that neither Hezbollah nor Israel want to wage a war in Lebanon, regardless of how much this would serve the interests of the regime in Damascus or in Tehran.
Russia has aroused fears from the possibility of it directing its vengeance and vindictiveness towards pushing for partitioning in Syria, exporting the conflict to Lebanon or provoking a confrontation between Iran and Israel through proxy wars. But Russia remains a major power that will not bear responsibility for wars that could witness the use of banned chemical weapons. This is why Russia joined Western countries in warning Damascus against making use of such weapons.
What will Russia do, after it has lost strong assets of influence, concession and trade-offs -including the asset of its axis with Damascus and Tehran - in its bilateral negotiations with the United States? The answer resides in whether Russia’s leadership admits to the grave mistake in using its veto power for the third time.
It could thus rectify its course in order to regain some initiative. If, on the other hand, it were to be remain obstinate, believing itself to be right to adopt such a policy, then the climate of this new Cold War will lead us to confrontation, extremism, proxy wars and wars of attrition which will come at a great cost. This applies not just to the region but also to Russia itself – on its home soil, in its neighborhood and in its international standing.
The writer is a columnist at al-Hayat daily. The article was published in the London-based daily on July 28, 2012