With all the high-level diplomatic visits to Moscow and accompanying news headlines, a casual observer might easily conclude that Russia holds the key to resolving the Syrian crisis. But as the latest round of failed talks this weekend — this time between Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria — conclusively demonstrate, Russia will not be part of the solution on Syria.
Senior Russian officials have made that clear for months, but some members of the international community, perhaps until recently, just didn’t believe them.
This confusion could stem from the frequent reporting on the ties that bound Russia to President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria — military, religious, intelligence-sharing and so on. These factors certainly play some role in Moscow’s approach. But they do not explain why the Kremlin has issued three U.N. Security Council vetoes, bent over backward to water down the Geneva Communiqué calling for a peaceful transition of authority, and fastidiously avoided joining the call for Assad to step down. Moscow did not take these steps because of its interests in Syria or because it backs Assad — indeed, as early as the summer of 2011, Russia’s president at the time, Dmitri Medvedev, warned that barring immediate reforms, “a sad fate awaits him.”
Rather, the tragedy in Syria has brought to the surface a fundamental divergence between Russia’s approach to international intervention and that of much of the rest of the international community, particularly the United States and the European Union. Moscow does not believe the U.N. Security Council should be in the business of endorsing the removal of a sitting government.
Many people in the Russian foreign-policy establishment believe that the string of U.S.-led interventions that resulted in regime change since the end of the Cold War — in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — are a threat to the stability of the international system and potentially to “regime stability” in Russia itself. Russia did not give its imprimatur to these interventions, and will never do so if it suspects the motive is removal of a sitting government.
The notion that Russia could eventually be the target of such an intervention might seem absurd in Washington, but suspicion of potential future U.S. intentions runs deep in Moscow. Therefore, Russia uses what power it has to shape the international system — particularly, its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — to avoid creating a dangerous precedent that could eventually be used against it.
In the case of Syria, Moscow cannot be convinced that U.S. motives are driven purely by the humanitarian calamity that Assad created. Instead, the Kremlin sees sinister geopolitics at play, with Washington moving to get rid of a government whose foreign policy long contradicted U.S. interests, particularly by aligning with Iran. So when President Obama proclaimed on Aug. 18, 2011, that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” thus making regime change an official U.S. priority, the window for common ground with Russia at the U.N. closed. The fact that the texts of the proposed resolutions did not reflect that priority was irrelevant, given what Moscow saw as Washington’s now openly stated ultimate goal.
Since then, many have tried to change Russia’s policy, and all have failed. Journalists often inadvertently perpetuate a perceived need to “take another go at Moscow” when every Russian statement is parsed for hidden clues to an imminent policy shift. This has been particularly true in recent weeks as Russia’s assessment of the facts on the ground has changed; the Russians might be dogmatic, but they’re not blind. But a changed assessment in this case will not lead to a changed policy. The reason is simple: Russia’s stance on international action on the Syria crisis has more to do with anxieties about the implications of U.S. power than it does with Syria itself.
So if Russia can’t be part of a solution that involves the Security Council, why is the international community spending so much time courting senior Russians on Syria? Some say that Russia could, if it so chose, pressure Assad into making the concessions necessary for a negotiated settlement. Perhaps Russia had such leverage with Assad 12 or 18 months ago. But now he is in a fight for survival, and there is no good reason to believe that he would do anything more than smile and nod at any ultimatum from Moscow. And since such a hypothetical ultimatum would at a minimum involve Assad’s immediate departure, because that would be the only way to get the opposition to the table, it will remain a hypothetical one.
If there is one palpable outcome to all the recent diplomacy, it has been Moscow’s empowerment. This may prove fleeting, but in the meantime the international community’s time and energy are better spent on efforts that have the potential to produce a resolution in Syria.
Samuel Charap is senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.