Russia’s Syria Calculus: Behind Moscow’s Plan to Avert U.S. Missile Strikes

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Michael Klimentyev / RIA Novosti / Kremlin / Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets candidates who won regional and local elections across Russia at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Sept. 10, 2013

The notion of Syria giving up its chemical weapons, or at least putting them under foreign control, has long been on the table in the consultations between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and his allies in Moscow. In the course of the civil war that has been raging in Syria for more than two years, “we discussed this possibility many times from many different angles,” says Russian diplomat Andrei Klimov. But it was only in the past week that both Russia and Syria realized that it was in both of their best interests.

Previously, Syria’s chemical weapons, which are largely based on Russian or Soviet technology, helped defend the Assad regime. “They have served as a certain deterrent against Israel,” says Leonid Kalashnikov, a member of the foreign-affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament. Though Israel has conducted at least one air strike against Assad’s forces during the civil war, the presence of chemical weapons would likely discourage Israel or any other foreign armies from using ground forces in Syria. But after Aug. 21, when the Syrian military was accused of using these weapons against its own people, including hundreds of women and children, they became a major liability — allowing the U.S. to justify its own proposed intervention in Syria.

Russian diplomats say this changed their calculus on Syria’s chemical weapons dramatically. From Moscow’s point of view, a U.S. military strike on Syria would not only cripple its long-standing ally, but it would also undermine Russia’s biggest trump card on the international stage — its veto power in the U.N. Security Council. In the past few days, world leaders have decried the ineffectiveness of the Security Council, which has been unable to pass any meaningful resolutions on Syria because of repeated vetoes from Russia and China. “Two and a half years of conflict in Syria have produced only embarrassing paralysis in the Security Council,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at a press conference on Monday, Sept. 9. This echoed the frustration of U.S. and European leaders, as well as their allies in the Arab world, who jointly vowed last week to take strong action against Syria even if it means circumventing the U.N.

That would be a dangerous precedent for Russia. Kalashnikov, a lawmaker from the Communist Party, compared it to the incident in 1939 when the League of Nations kicked out the Soviet Union, a permanent member of the organization, in response to the Soviet attack against Finland. This not only hurt the aims of Soviet diplomacy but also precipitated the collapse of the world’s then most powerful intergovernmental organization. “Today you can draw this analogy, because the U.N. and its Security Council can already be called useless,” says Kalashnikov. “That is awful for Russia,” he says, because the Security Council is still Moscow’s main tool in achieving “parity, or at least balance, with the West. And rupturing this balance is not in Russia’s interests.”

With that in mind, Russia set about making itself as useful as possible in the Syrian crisis over the past week, so that it could not be dismissed and sidelined as a spoiler on the international stage. (Indeed, some U.S. experts have begun suggesting the creation of a new club of world leaders that would leave Russia and China out.) The result was this week’s proposal to have Syria put its chemical-weapons stockpiles under international control or even to destroy them. The Russians pushed hard on the Syrian government to accept such a move. “When the Russian side announced it [on the morning of Sept. 9], as far as I understand, our Syrian partners were not yet sure to what extent they were ready to confirm this. But everyone was interested in a quick resolution of this issue,” says Klimov, who has traveled to Syria numerous times during the civil war in his role as chairman of the foreign-affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament.

That same day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was in Moscow for talks — a piece of fortunate timing that Klimov claims was “a coincidence” — and that evening, Muallem held a hastily assembled press conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to announce their willingness to discuss Syria giving up its chemical weapons. U.S. President Barack Obama said the proposal could be a “breakthrough,” and on Tuesday, Sept. 10, Muallem announced that Syria had accepted the Russian proposal to hand over control of its chemical weapons in order to “derail the U.S. aggression.” Both sides seemed to be stepping back from the verge of an international conflict.

From Russia’s perspective, this outcome also offers other benefits. Securing Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles, let alone dismantling them, would be a time-consuming and difficult process that would only begin after the sketchy details of the proposal are clarified and approved by all sides. These delays, which could take months, would give Assad more time to crush the rebellion against him, says Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian military analyst who worked from 1995 to 2007 as a strategist for the Russian General Staff. President Vladimir Putin and his top officials have long maintained that a Syria without the Assad regime would be more dangerous than one with it.

In the past two weeks, while the U.S. and its allies were preparing a military intervention in Syria, “Assad was forced to pull his forces away from the regions that had no antiaircraft cover to regions where they would have cover,” says Sivkov, who has also traveled to Syria during the civil war to consult with local officials. “That was, of course, a temporary retreat, and he’s regrouping. As soon as the threat of American intervention eases a little, he will finish [the rebels] off with artillery, tanks and air power. But for now he’s been forced to worry about the security of his own military forces.”

Acting as a mediator between Syria and the West also raises Russia’s prestige on the world stage. But Klimov, who is a member of the ruling party of President Putin, says this was a secondary concern. “The subject of prestige does come up,” he says. But more important, “we will just breathe a sigh of relief when we are able to resolve this crisis near our borders.” Unlike the U.S., Russia does face the risk of Syria’s civil war spilling dangerously close to its territory, especially if the U.S.-proposed intervention leads to Assad’s downfall and a regional conflagration. “We’re right nearby. We have the Caspian Sea right there. We have our fellow citizens around that area. We have tens of thousands of tourists in Cyprus and Turkey. And those rockets will fly over the heads of our citizens,” Klimov says. “So we are protecting thousands of our citizens, whom fate has left in the vicinity of these strikes. We are not simply trying to cast Obama in a bad light.”

Indeed, some Russian officials are enjoying their chance to help Obama find a way out of the Syrian crisis, which has caused the White House plenty of trouble at home and abroad. After the chemical-weapons attacks near Damascus on Aug. 21, “I think Obama regrets that he reacted so belligerently,” says a former officer of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, who holds the rank of major general. “He’s losing face. So this is a chance for the Americans to step back from some of their threats,” he says, asking to remain anonymous. So for all the acrimony between the U.S. and Russia over Syria in recent months, the interests of all three sides may finally have come into alignment.