Putin: Holding Fire and Water in One Hand |
Al Hayat - 11 July, 2012
Author: George Semaan
Russia's and China's boycott of the Friends of the Syria meeting in the French capital is striking at many levels. First, the Geneva Accord signed a week ago between the P5 states and representatives from the United Nations, the Arab League, Turkey and Iraq, was not an accord at all. Had it been one, it would not have necessitated the staging of the Paris conference, or its boycotters would have at least attended it, led by Mr. Kofi Annan - whose ‘shameful’ absence could not be excused by Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed.
In any case, the Syrians were not waiting for the Friends’ conference to learn that what was reached by the Geneva meeting was a stillborn. At this level, the numerous contradicting interpretations issued by the signatories to the agreement a few minutes after it was announced were enough, and it was as though the meeting was never held.
In the meantime, had Russia been concerned about the Syrian people’s interests and not supportive of the regime – as it has been claiming – it should have attended to explain to the Syrians and their “friends” how it was protecting these people’s interests, in the hope it would convince them, or vice versa.
On the other hand, had the American administration been interested in ending the Syrian bloodshed, it should have boycotted the meeting in Geneva and even the one in Paris, instead of settling for Mr. Hillary Clinton’s statements - which he has been repeating for months now.
For their part, the “friends” who attended the Paris conference never stopped calling on President Vladimir Putin to abandon his support for the regime in Damascus and its head, or to maintain some ethics at the level of his foreign policy. But it seems that they have forgotten what Putin does to his opponents, and his imprisonment of dozens of journalists and symbols of the mounting opposition against his regime without any reluctance.
If he showed no mercy toward his rivals on the domestic arena, why would he show mercy toward the Syrian opposition, regardless of its size, scope, high voice and great sacrifices? Three years ago, his government did not hesitate to fragment Georgia, annex Abkhazia and Ossetia and lead them away from the Tbilisi authority. So why would he listen to warnings against Syria’s fragmentation and division?
True, the Paris conference which included the representatives of over 100 states sent a strong message to Damascus, Moscow and Beijing, and set the foundations for possible wide-scale international action outside the context of the United Nations, in case future developments or the obstruction of the deals were to require such a step. This is alarming Russia which is stressing the necessity of seeing the action conducted within the context of the international organization and its charters.
But what is also true is that the Americans and Europeans are settling for calling on Russia to relinquish President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, reiterating that they will head to the Security Council without threatening to use any weapon, however, that would enable them to push the Kremlin to consider changing its position. It is as though they are just standing in front of the Council’s door, while waiting for Moscow to do the honors and open it, bearing in mind that the latter knows deep down inside – just like all those standing behind the regime in Damascus – that this regime cannot stay in power.
In light of this situation, a long time might elapse before the Syrian bloodshed stops. Indeed, this international dialogue of the deaf - or Russian-American dialogue - might take time, which could further complicate the conditions for a settlement. In the meantime, the mounting violence is luring Al-Qaeda and its sisters to an open arena, a thing against which Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had previously warned.
This is pushing the Syrian crisis towards a series of complications and transforming it into an arena open to all sorts of clashes, interferences and deals. It has become a key part of an international network of relations that is intricate beyond the ability of the Syrian parties to force the international community, especially Moscow and Washington, to change their positions.
Moscow has tried and is still trying to fully control the Syrian card, in order to enhance its position in the dialogue or the conflict with the United States. This is due to the fact that holding the Syrian key is like holding the intricate network of relations and interests throughout the region.
This is why – during his last tour to the region – President Putin tried to strengthen what could be dubbed the “triangle” of Russia’s interests, from Tehran to Tel Aviv-Ramallah and Damascus. He also knows that Syria’s fall in Turkey’s hand would mean NATO besieging his country in a wide crescent extending all the way to the Gulf States – in addition to North Africa – following the changes produced by the Arab spring in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Moreover, he is aware of the fact that the fall of this card in Iran’s hand could undermine Russia’s position in the region and weaken its stand vis-à-vis America.
At this level, there is no arguing about the fact that Moscow is placing its relationship with Washington above any other consideration and will use the Syrian card without any hesitation in its dialogue or conflict with it, just as it has done during the last few years by using the Iranian nuclear file. Consequently, its relations with Tehran have suffered, due to the fact that Iran cannot join Moscow’s wing and exit the cloak of Khomeini and the slogan of his revolution “neither Eastern nor Western.”
Putin also realizes that Tehran’s role in the Middle East and Central Asia is no less important than Ankara’s role in this wide area. Moreover, he cannot neglect Turkey’s expansion into the heart of the former Soviet Republics, in addition to the Caucasus and Chechnya among others, which enjoyed ties with the Ottoman Empire, considering that this rapprochement serves NATO.
In the meantime, and through this deployment, Iran is trying to enhance – at least temporarily – its position in the face of the West, whether at the level of dialogue or the conflict. Subsequently, it will be easy for Moscow to agree with it in the region, as long as Tehran needs it as a prominent international supporter in international forums.
This does not mean that Russia has no regard for the Arab positions. Indeed, it took into account the Gulf States’ anger towards its policy in Syria, and has tried and is still trying to find excuses for this policy. True, it relies on Iran and its ability to bother and threaten its neighbors, but what is also true is that it is aware of the size of the losses which might affect it in case it were to overly support Tehran’s policies towards its neighbors.
This could also damage its relations with the Arab countries, in addition to America, Europe and Israel. And since Russia is unable to keep up with the United States at the level of its military expansion and deployment in all the seas – especially the Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the China Sea and the Mediterranean – it is temporarily relying on the Islamic Republic and Syria to confront and obstruct this deployment, as it is unable to build strategic balance with the superpower.
In this context, one must note that throughout the conflict over the Iranian nuclear file, Russia proved to be blatantly opposed to the Islamic Republic’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. And this is a key point of the dispute which provoked in the last few years an open conflict between the two countries.
Consequently, while casting its accusations against Moscow, Tehran did not hesitate to say it was succumbing to the Americans’ wishes. Nonetheless, the Islamic Republic’s acquisition of this weapon will undermine the balance of powers in the region and harm not only the West’s position, but also Russia’s role and interests. Putin is also not oblivious to the fact that relations between Tehran and Washington in the future will eventually be made at the expense of his country’s interests and regional relations. Hence, the Russian dealings with Tehran should be based on the assessment of each step in accordance with an accurate balance.
On the other hand, the currently American administration is being very cautious in dealing with Moscow to avoid angering it or provoking its concerns in regard to sensitive issues such as national security, from the missile shield to NATO’s expansion toward the Islamic Republic. In addition, it is establishing truce with it at the level of the Syrian crisis and avoiding pushing it toward the adoption of a stringent position in regard to the Iranian nuclear file, thus losing its support and allowing Iran to monopolize the Syrian card.
This is due to the fact that the regime change in Damascus and not just Al-Assad’s departure, could - in light of the current map - pressure Tehran, paralyze its influence in Lebanon and threaten its presence in Iraq, as well as lead to Russia’s weakening and threaten its presence and interests in the region.
Now the question is: Will the master of the Kremlin be able to enhance his relations with this triangle to achieve his political dreams and aspirations? This is linked to Russia’s military and economic abilities which do not seem to be sufficient. Indeed, while the relations with Iran and Syria are confronting numerous threats, building relations with Israel while relying on the major bloc of Russian Jewish immigrants will neither reassure Iran, nor appease Tel Aviv’s fears toward Tehran, i.e. Russia’s temporary partner in the confrontation with the United States.
On the other hand, such a step will not help Putin perform a major role in the settlement with the Palestinians, at a time when Hamas’s control over the authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization is as likely as the Muslim Brotherhood’s control in Egypt and elsewhere, and its subsequent favoring the group in any settlement of the Palestinian cause. As to Jordan’s wooing, knowing it is distancing itself from the Syrian crisis, it will fail to impact the relations between Amman and the Gulf capitals that are disgruntled about the Russian position.
Furthermore, Moscow cannot show any hostility toward political Islam in the Arab world, as well as its alliance and the truce it has established in the Islamic Republic. Therefore, in light of these facts, Putin cannot hold fire and water in one hand. So, how long will this Russian triangle last?