Russia shifts tactics, but not policy, on Syria


Russia may have shifted its tactics by proposing its own U.N. resolution on Syria but is still defiantly sticking to the same policy on the crisis that has angered the West in the last few months.

Moscow took fellow U.N. Security Council members by surprise when it suddenly proposed a draft resolution on Thursday condemning the violence in Syria, after months of bickering with other world powers on how to respond to the crisis.

But while Russia’s move could indicate it is feeling the pressure over its defiant refusal to abandon support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the resolution reiterates the same Russian policy stances that have so dismayed the West.

“Russia’s position on Syria − that there is no need to topple Assad as without him things would be even worse − has not changed,” said Alexei Malashenko, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“The resolution has been put forward to show goodwill. The West’s positive reaction to the draft is diplomatic more than anything.”

Viktor Kremenyuk, the deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute added: “It’s not exactly a change in position, more a sign of a greater sense of responsibility on the part of Russia.”

Crucially, the resolution condemns violence both by Assad’s government and opposition groups, a sharing of the blame for the bloodshed that is at odds with the Western position of squarely accusing the regime.

“There’s unfortunately a seeming parity (in the resolution) between the government and peaceful protesters,” remarked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Moreover it also contains no threat of sanctions, a stick that Western powers want to brandish in any resolution but which Moscow insists would be counterproductive.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov bluntly stated this week that sanctions “with rare exceptions never work” and warned condemning just one side in the Syrian violence would lead to a “repeat of the Libyan scenario.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich also said on Friday that the draft should in no way be taken as a signal for “external interference in domestic Syrian affairs,” a prospect regarded with horror in Moscow.

Moscow is still angry with the West that the air campaign in Libya − which Russia essentially allowed to proceed by abstaining in a U.N. vote − ended with the toppling and then killing of its traditional ally Muammar Qaddafi.

With its influence on the world stage waning 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is keen to show the West that it is a major player in the Syria crisis.

According to the ITAR-TASS news agency, Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa is due to hold talks in Moscow but this has not been confirmed officially.

Kremenyuk said while there were signs of a narrowing between the positions of Moscow and the West on Syria, the two sides still retained starkly different strategies in the crisis.

“For Russia, Syria is an important weapons market and we do not want to lose it or give way while the other countries want that Assad is ousted from power,” he said.

Moscow still maintains its Soviet-era ties with the secular regime in Damascus that were cultivated with Bashar al-Assad’s father and strongman predecessor Hafez al-Assad.

Much to the annoyance of the United States and Israel, Russia had fulfilled a contract reportedly worth at least $300 million (222 million euros) to deliver Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria.

Russia maintains a naval base in Syria in the port of Tartus which its only aircraft carrier The Admiral Kuznetsov is due to visit at the head of a flotilla by the end of this year.

Analysts also say Russia is happy to needle the West at a time when Europe and the United States have criticized the conduct of parliamentary elections this month and strongman Vladimir Putin is preparing to return to the Kremlin.

For Russia, Syria is an important weapons market and we do not want to lose it or give way while the other countries want that Assad is ousted from power

Viktor Kremenyuk, the deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute