After the resignation of the UN Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, Moscow’s options are limited to buying time and waiting to see how the situation pans out in Syria, Russian analysts and lawmakers said.
Annan’s decision to step down, voiced on Thursday, spells a diplomatic loss for Russia, which never managed to implement a proactive policy on Syria, experts said on Friday.
“We were chronically late on Syria,” said Vladimir Akhmedov of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Now we’ve backed ourselves into a corner.”
Annan, who became the UN and Arab League envoy to the war-torn Syria in February, proposed a peace plan to end the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ragtag opposition forces.
The plan, focused on negotiation and reconciliation efforts, was actively endorsed by Russia, which blocked several resolutions by the United States and European countries in the UN Security Council, saying they were biased against Assad.
However, Annan said this week that he would quit the job by September because of a deadlock in the Security Council. His plan failed to prevent the escalation of the civil war in the country, which sees daily battles between the opposition and government forces.
Annan was pushed out of the peace process by forces lobbying for foreign military intervention in Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Friday.
Gatilov named no suspects, but Russia had earlier accused Western powers, which have been actively opposing Assad since the start of the conflict in Syria, of trying to reproduce the “Libyan scenario,” which saw Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi ousted by rebels with the help of NATO air strikes in 2011.
Russia would wait for appointment of a new UN envoy on Syria and continue its push for negotiations between Assad and his enemies, said Leonid Kalashnikov of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Russian State Duma.
“I just hope it would not be a partisan person, because that will cause parties to retire into their respective shells,” said Kalashnikov, a member of the Communist Party.
Akhmedov agreed, saying that Russia will wait and see how the situation in Syria develops. He added it was time for “intricate secret diplomacy” as well as economic action, such as helping the three million Syrians who do not receive enough food at the moment.
But foreign policy expert Alexei Malashenko was more skeptical. “I have no idea how we are going to save face over this,” he said.
Most international players are already planning for the situation that will arise after Assad’s imminent ouster, but not Russia, said Malashenko, who works for the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank.
“We’re still stuck in the past, which could leave us without allies, either in Syria or the Middle East,” Malashenko said.
He was echoed by Akhmedov, who said that Russia made a mistake by trying to use the Syrian conflict to boost its international prestige, despite never having much leverage over Damascus.
“And now giving up on Assad would damage our prestige throughout the world,” he said.
No Quick Ending
Assad’s regime is resilient enough and is unlikely to topple in the short-term, analysts said.
“His resources proved bigger than expected,” Malashenko said. He cited the 1.5 million Alawis, members of Assad’s Islamic sect that ruled Syria for decades, forming the backbone of the army and the government.
The Alawis will fight to the death because for them, the likely alternative is genocide or expulsion by a victorious opposition, which is made up of other Islamic denominations, analysts said.
The situation threatens to turn into a protracted all-out war that would affect all of the neighboring states, which can only be prevented by a foreign intervention or a coup to remove Assad, said Akhmedov.
Current losses from the conflict, which began in March 2011, are estimated between 14,000 and 20,000. However, the region has seen worse: a civil war in the neighboring Lebanon lasted from 1975 to 1990 and resulted in 150,000 to 300,000 deaths.
Evacuation by Marines
Meanwhile, Russia faces a more urgent task than global power-play because it needs to evacuate some 20,000 of its citizens who remain in Syria, Akhmedov said.
The pull-out could be risky because the Western media are likely to trumpet the move as Russia’s abandoning Assad, which could prompt the embattled regime into revenge or provocation, he said.
Russia keeps a naval supply base in the Syrian port of Tartus, and Russian warships docked there are reported to have marines onboard. They could be forced to intervene in the conflict in case of an attack on Russian citizens, further fueling chaos in Syria, Akhmedov said.
“If this happens, we’re better off joining the Americans on prospective foreign intervention in Syria,” he said.