The latest aggravation of the Syrian crisis and the failure of Kofi Annan’s mission pose new challenges for Russia’s foreign policy. Russia has confirmed its status as a key player in the Middle East and so far has prevented (along with China) the development of the “Libyan scenario” in Syria.
Now Moscow faces another serious dilemma: what next? It is now clear that continuing the current policy (adherence to the Annan Plan and diplomatic support for Damascus), which made sense six months ago, is no longer a valid option.
It is obvious that the Syrian crisis entered a new stage this summer. Judging by how well the double attack on Damascus and Aleppo and the July 18 terror attack were organized, we can say that the once scattered groups of militants now appear to have a unified command. The opposition has managed to acquire weapons and recruit new supporters. For that reason the Syrian opposition, which has escalated combat actions in recent months, has little incentive to negotiate with the authorities.
With the UN split over Syria - between Russia and China on the one hand and the United States, Britain and France on the other - the Syrian opposition is feeling pretty confident. The Western powers condemn the violence committed by Assad’s forces, at the same time they regard violence committed by the rebels as an unpleasant but unavoidable part of the fight against dictatorship.
Russia has a number of possible options, each with its own positive and negative sides.
One option is for Moscow to stick to the existing course that, as noted previously, has proved to be fruitless. Moscow could, without any redirection of effort, continue its diplomatic support for the Assad government and block possible UN sanctions against Syria. This tactic saved Damascus from armed intervention last year. However, under the new conditions, it will only prolong the conflict as the balance of forces in the civil war gradually tilts in favor of the opposition (due to arms and finances supplied from abroad and the engagement of mercenaries), ultimately leading to the fall of the Assad government.
Another alternative is to pressure the Syrian president to resign in favor of someone close to him. That would give Russian diplomacy an argument: “Assad is gone, let's negotiate.” But the resignation of the head of the state would certainly be perceived by the opposition as evidence that anything can be achieved through violence, making it even less willing to begin a dialogue with the authorities.
Finally, Moscow could try to shift the active engagement in the Syrian crisis onto the shoulders of other states, i.e. China and Iran, and step out of the limelight. Tehran is keen to stabilize the situation in Syria and maintain a friendly regime there, to avoid geopolitical isolation as it faces the threat of foreign incursions. However, China, whose main interests are in the Asia-Pacific region, would most likely follow Russia’s example. That might open up the possibility of a wider war in the Middle East entailing the violent destruction of the Syrian government and military action against Tehran.
Then Moscow can try to play a more active role. In addition to diplomatic support to Assad’s government, Moscow can supply the regime with the needed weapons and equipment (to compensate for the support of the opposition by the Western powers and the regional oil monarchies). With the help of intelligence forces it can organize the collection and transmission of information on armed opposition groups to the Syrian government. It can organize patrols of the Syrian coast by the Russian navy to intercept the vessels supplying arms to the opposition. And put maximum pressure on the major sponsors of its armed wing: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The latter option will inevitably lead to greater Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, it will show the irreconcilable opposition that it will face serious difficulties if it continues to prosecute the war. but the diplomatic cost for Russia’s realtion with its Western powers that, unlike Syria, remain Moscow’s key economic partners.
All these scenarios are, of course, purely theoretical. The choice of one or the other of them depends on the Kremlin’s assessment of all potential risks and benefits. Probably the key role will be played by President Vladimir Putin’s stated allegiance to the principle that foreign interventions should not decide domestic affairs of sovereign countries.
Now we can only hope that the Kremlin’s choice will also reflect Russia’s national interests – and be beneficial for the people of Syria.
*Alexei Pilko is Senior Research Fellow at Moscow State University, Faculty of History.