Weighing Russia’s Syria Success

Those who have bemoaned the acrimonious exchanges between the United States and Russia, watched with dismay as President Obama’s “reset” with Moscow (more of a marketing moniker than substantive policy) unraveled, and tried valiantly to insist that Russia remains a great power and ought to be respected and embraced by Washington as a partner have had their spirits lifted recently. What did it was Moscow’s dramatic demarche following the August 21 use of chemical weapons by the Assad government.

Related Events

On October 3, 2013 the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center hosted a discussion– Syria: Prospects for Political Settlement–with Lord George Robertson, former secretary general of NATO; Igor Ivanov, former foreign minister of Russia; and Frederic C. Hof, the Atlantic Council’s lead expert on Syria and former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State

Russia’s creative and quick-footed diplomacy averted a possible American (and French) military strike against Assad and laid the groundwork for a deal that could lead to the tallying and disabling of Syria’s chemicalweapons stocks, said to total some one thousand tonnes. After Russian diplomats worked to secure Assad’s compliance, Russia and the U.S. took the lead in preparing a Security Council resolution aimed at ridding Syria of chemical weapons, and the Council adopted it unanimously. But, in yet another display of Russian influence, the resolution did not contain an authorization, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, to implement its provisions by force if necessary, something that the U.S., Britain, and France had demanded. Any such move will require a follow-on resolution, which Russia can veto. A Russian diplomatic blitz preceding the Security Council vote was indispensable to the outcome. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov persuaded Assad that he had to surrender his chemical weapons or risk an American military attack. Russia also enlisted the help of Syria’s patron, Iran, showing that it had the kind of influence over Assad and a productive relationship with Tehran that none of the other big powers did.

So just how big has the Russian triumph been and what, if anything, does it tell us about Russia’s present and prospective power and influence?

The savvy of Russia’s diplomats, Lavrov’s in particular but also that of its UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, is undeniable. Contrast Lavrov’s virtuoso performance with the erratic role of his American counterpart, John Kerry. During the crisis Kerry, a man with vast experience in foreign policy, personified histrionic excess and inconsistency. At one point he likened the Syrian government’s chemical attack to “a Munich moment” (Assad as Hitler); at another, in an apparent effort to calm mounting opposition in Congress and among Americans more generally, he declared that the planned missile attack would be “unbelievably small” (a wrist slap for the latter-day Hitler).

The contrast between Kerry’s prolixity and hyperbole during his Congressional testimony and the measured tones of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, who were also testifying, accentuated the Secretary of State’s melodrama while also stoking the expectations of those who were pulling for a strike as well as the anxieties of those who worried that it would suck America into another civil war. Worse, it conveyed the impression that the administration was divided. Then there was the ill-timed outburst of the activist-turned-diplomat, Samantha Power, who, having only recently arrived at the UN as Obama’s ambassador, blasted Russia for holding the UN hostage—this just as her boss was heading to the G20 summit in St. Petersburg in hopes of bringing President Vladimir Putin around.

President Obama didn’t shine either. Exactly a year before the August 21 chemical attack, he had warned Assad publicly that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would alter his “calculus.” Despite evidence that Assad had crossed that line several times, Obama did nothing. Following the August 21 attack, a president who had been leery of getting involved in Syria’s conflict seemed to have no choice but to order American warships toward Syria in preparation for a military strike. But once Prime Minister David Cameron failed to convince the House of Commons that Assad had to be hit and Congressional and public opposition to a strike began to register, the president tossed the hot potato to Congress, giving Assad breathing space. That provoked a raft of comments about a White House in disarray. It also hung French president Francois Hollande, who had announced that France would join America in striking Assad, out to dry.

In the event, Lavrov and Putin saved the president from the folly of attacking Syria merely to make good on a threat that he never should have made in the first place. By the administration’s own admission, the attack would have been a limited one and was not intended to alter the military balance in Syria, which has shifted in Assad’s favor. The only rationale that the White House and other supporters of the strike could offer was the importance of demonstrating American credibility. That perennial catch-all defense was pulled from the attic and dusted off, but with no accompanying explanation of how attacking Syria would achieve anything meaningful, such as ending a slaughter that has consumed more than one hundred thousand lives. The advocates of the strike then proclaimed that Assad had to be punished to demonstrate to Iran that it risked peril if it thought that it could call Obama’s bluff and go nuclear. The White House echoed this rationale. But underlying that contention was the curious, to say nothing of legally suspect, argument that it was necessary and proper to attack a country that had not attacked the United States (or threatened to) in order to send a message to another country that had also had not so.

In contrast to this spectacle of confusion in Washington, Moscow’s diplomatic machine seemed well oiled, efficient, and expertly operated. With impressive speed, Russia used its longstanding ties with Assad and its good relationship with Iran in order to convince Syria’s leadership to support a Russian-designed deal aimed at depriving it of the very weapons that it has consistently claimed not to have. Moscow also secured Assad’s commitment to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russia thus headed off an American attack that could have rallied a demoralized Syrian opposition and provided space for ardent supporters of arming it. Lavrov came away from the crisis with his well-earned reputation as the most capable foreign minister in the P-5 burnished further. Putin was able to place Russia on center stage and to show that it is a great power that still matters; and he became the main event at the G20 conclave at St. Petersburg. The White House sought to salvage its standing by making the wafer-thin case that the Russian plan had actually originated with Obama (during his informal chat with Putin at St. Petersburg) and Kerry (while answering a question lobbed at him by a reporter). All that did was to underscore the administration’s ineptitude.

OK, so Russia one, America zero in the recent Syria-related diplomacy game. But just how consequential is this Russian achievement?

Let’s start with the plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. It could take many months to locate all of Syria’s chemical-weapons installations, to produce a reliable account of the exact size of its arsenal, and to remove or neutralize the stockpile. The many technical personnel who will be involved in accomplishing those tasks will have to be protected because they will be operating in the midst of a civil war and thus exposed to numerous hazards. Who will provide the troops to ensure their safety? Russia has expressed a willingness to do so, but Syria’s radical Islamists despise Moscow for its war against their coreligionists in the North Caucasus, its stubborn backing of Assad and its demonizing of the resistance, especially its Islamist elements. The Islamist fighters are the strongest forces within the anti-Assad opposition, which means that Russian soldiers deployed in Syria could be in a perilous position.

Let’s also be clear about the limits of what Russia’s nimble diplomacy accomplished. Moscow devised a plan that could—if all goes well—lead to the liquidation of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. But Russia hasn’t been able to bring peace to Syria despite its call for negotiations and is even less well placed to do so now, having burned its bridges with the most potent of the groups battling Assad, the radical Islamists. Given the Islamist insurgency raging in the North Caucasus and the signs that militant Islamic groups have begun operating in Tatarstan, a far more important region, Moscow can scarcely be comforted by the prospect of a Syria teeming with jihadist groups, some loyal to Al Qaeda. Furthermore, what prevented Obama from attacking Assad’s regime was not Russia’s opposition but the debacle suffered by Cameron and opposition from the American public and the Congress. Russia would have certainly used its veto to block any resolution seeking UN authorization for an attack, but it could not have prevented Obama from launching a strike unilaterally had the surrounding circumstances been more favorable.

As for the long run, there’s no chance that Assad’s regime can make Syria whole again so that Russia can reestablish its prewar position in the country. Syria bids fair to resemble Lebanon during the worst days of its civil war. It will likely metamorphose into a collection of statelets, a process already underway. Some, located mainly in the north and east, will some run by various Islamist groups. Assad’s Alawite-dominated structures will likely control Damascus and its environs plus the swath of territory framed by the coastal towns of Latakia and Tartus and the Jabal an Nusayriyah range. The Kurds will try and retain their bastions in the northeast and northwest. The Druze will create their haven in the Jabal al- Druze in the southwest. The other communities in Syria’s complex tapestry will have to find succor within these protopolities or seek refuge abroad. A Syria that is fractured along these lines could be volatile and violent for years to come—and poor because of the massive destruction and displacement created by the war. In short, it won’t be much a strategic prize for Moscow. Bashar al-Assad won’t have the cash to sign the multi-billion dollars arms deals with Russia that Syria has since his father, Hafez al-Assad, took power in 1970. The Russian Navy may still have access to Tartus, but that asset, which even now is not a full-fledged base, will count for less given the chaos that will persist in the hinterland, and the port may even be vulnerable to attack by anti-Assad insurgents.

Moreover, as Dexter Filkins shows in a recent New Yorker piece, the country with the most clout in Syria is Iran, not Russia. Tehran has propped up Assad’s embattled regime with massive loans, a steady airlift of arms, and support from trainers and intelligence operatives attached to Iran’s Quds Force and from Hezbollah fighters, who entered the fray at Iran’s behest. Assad may be grateful to Putin for the chemical weapons deal that he and Lavrov put together and that saved him from an American strike, but there should be no doubt that it’s Iran, not Russia, that will have the most influence over whatever remains of the House of Assad.

It’s also unwarranted to infer much about Russia’s long-term influence based on its recent diplomatic victory. Russia faces a litany of serious problems that no amount of foreign-policy proficiency can overcome. Its population is shrinking and aging, and the country faces major public-health problems. Its 2010-2020 military-modernization program, for which the state has committed over $700 billion dollars, has run into serious trouble, and Putin recently upbraided the deputy prime minister overseeing it. Its economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas sales for budget revenue (the estimates range from 35 to 50 percent) and export earnings (close to 70 percent) and is thus hostage to the price fluctuations of two commodities and changes in the energy market, among them new sources of supply, the shale revolution, and emerging alternatives to hydrocarbons. Its massive corruption and the government’s failure to implement deep economic reforms (outcomes connected to Russia’s having become a petrostate) have together prevented it from attracting the level of foreign investment that a country with such a highly educated population and a large market should. One place where the combined effects of these problems are visible is Central Asia, the sphere of influence of Tsars and Commissars since its conquest by Imperial Russia during the mid- and late-nineteenth century. Over the two decades, however, China’s diplomacy and investments and trade have been steadily eroding what has been Russia’s 150-year stretch of uncontested influence in this region.

So yes, Russia’s president and foreign minister deserve kudos for having adroitly turned the latest Syrian crisis to their advantage. And yes, their achievement contrasted with what at times resembled amateurism at the White House and the State Department. And yes, Russia matters for all manner of reasons and should be taken seriously. But Russia’s long-term gains in Syria will prove slim; and they won’t do anything to reduce the severity of the multiple problems that, left unsolved, threaten to reduce its weight in world affairs.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Russia, on May 7, 2013 (Photo: US Department of State Flickr/CC License)