On Tuesday, Russia announced it was sending 11 warships to the Mediterranean—some of which would dock in Syria, where Moscow keeps a base in Tartus. If some onlookers believed that the “unusually large size of the force” was meant to send a message to Washington, the fact is, the Obama administration has been signaling to the Russians that they can get away with just about anything, especially when it comes to Syria.
Some 16 months into the Syrian uprising and after, according to some estimates, more than 17,000 have been killed, there is little end in sight. U.N. special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan has finally conceded that his six-point peace plan, has failed. “We have made significant efforts to resolve this situation by peaceful political methods,” Annan said earlier this week. “Obviously, we have not succeeded. And there is no guarantee that we will succeed.”
The initiative was doomed from the outset, but the problem, as the U.N.’s former secretary general has shown over the years, is that Annan is spectacularly ignorant of the nature of power politics. (Indeed, opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, claim that Annan’s pointless efforts are partly responsible for the regime’s latest massacre of Sunni villagers in Tremseh.) Earlier this week Annan was in Tehran to see if the Iranians might help end the bloodshed in Syria—a mission that effectively amounts to convincing the Islamic Republic to abandon its one Arab ally. “Iran can play a positive role and should therefore be a part of the solution in the Syrian crisis,” said Annan. Not surprisingly, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi used Annan’s statement as proof that Iran was “clearly not a part of the problem” in Syria. The Iranians know how the game is played—send money, arms, and troops to advance your interests and use international forums like the U.N. to launder your reputation.
There’s a growing belief in some circles that the White House might be doing the same thing. For all the temper tantrums the U.S. ambassador Susan Rice has thrown on the floor of the U.N. that Russia and China weren’t playing fair by vetoing resolutions against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, some analysts believe the Obama administration is taking a more active role on the ground in Syria. Evidence of American assistance and perhaps coordination of Saudi and Qatari arms support, say some, is that the Free Syrian Army’s attacks on regime loyalists and outposts are more effective. However, as Reuel Marc Gerecht writes in the Wall Street Journal, the White House is likely not as involved as has been suggested in some news reports—stories, writes Gerecht, “probably produced by officially sanctioned White House leaks.” Gerecht argues that the Obama administration should indeed be using the U.S. clandestine service to bring down Assad, but according to his sources, “the much-mentioned Saudi and Qatari military aid—reportedly chaperoned by the CIA—hasn't arrived in any meaningful quantity.”
Gerecht sees the administration’s two-faced game in Syria as the sign of “an administration trying not to commit itself,” but the White House’s posture toward Russia suggests something else as well. Like Kofi Annan, the Obama White House is simply at a loss when it comes to understanding power politics, which is why it cannot fathom how Moscow continues to support Assad.
Indeed, Russian intransigence seems odd to many who contend that if Russian president Vladimir Putin simply abandoned Assad, sooner rather than later, he would ensure a role for Moscow, and Russian interests, in the post-Assad political order. So let’s consider the various rationales used to explain why, seemingly against all common sense, Moscow won’t abandon the dictator in Damascus.
Some argue that Syria is a valued customer of Russian arms, but as Russian analysts explain, it doesn’t matter to the Russians that Syria has been buying arms from Moscow for decades. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Ruslan Pukhov, head of a Russian think tank, wrote that “arms sales to Syria today do not have any significance for Russia from either a commercial or a military-technological standpoint, and Syria isn’t an especially important partner in military-technological cooperation.”
Nor is the old Russian port in Tartus particularly important, even though it is Moscow’s one outlet on the eastern Mediterranean. Tartus, one Russian analyst told NOW Lebanon, is "not a base but a technical point for servicing ships… Of course it is a better to have such a point than not to have it. But losing it would not be strategic."
Then there’s the notion that Russia is still sore about being double-crossed over Libya, when they never wanted Qaddafi toppled. Annan explains here how the Russians believe they were deceived by the administration and its European allies. “The way the ‘responsibility to protect’ was used in Libya created a problem for the concept. The Russians and the Chinese believe they were tricked. They had agreed on a UN resolution, which was then transformed into a process of regime change, which wasn’t the initial goal according to these countries. Whenever we talk about Syria, there’s that elephant in the room.”
Maybe the Russians really do believe this, but it is difficult to see why this should matter to U.S. policymakers tasked with maintaining and advancing American interests. The White House’s conviction that it can’t act regarding Syria because of Russian limits is equivalent to the belief that if you traverse the seas far enough you will eventually fall off the earth. But what if the earth is not flat? Who cares what the Russians think? Does the Obama administration really believe that Putin is willing to risk a serious showdown with the U.S. over a refilling station in Tartus?
Then there are Russia’s talking points. According to Ruslan Pukhov, Moscow sympathizes with Assad because he is “a secular leader struggling with an uprising of Islamist barbarians. The active support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey’s Islamist government for rebels in Syria only heightens suspicions in Russia about the Islamist nature of the current opposition in Syria and rebels throughout the Middle East.”
Of course the real issue is not Islamists per se. Support for Assad has aligned Moscow with Islamists, Syria’s patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as Hezbollah, the Islamist militia that runs Lebanon. Russia’s problem is with the Sunni powers of the Middle East who back various Islamist outfits—Sunnis who are also, if paradoxically, allied with the United States. That is to say, Russia may very well have concerns about Islamist ideology, but its real focus is strategic: As Assad’s blocking back, Moscow has taken a leading role in the axis, including Islamists, that are in conflict with the U.S.-led regional order, which includes by extension Islamists.
But Russia, says Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, is not really “holding on to Assad.” Rather, according to this report, it is “defending basic international principles that prevented powerful nations from deciding the internal conflicts of smaller states.” Anti-imperialist rhetoric, it seems, has entered its baroque phase. Were this sentence not spoken by a Putin apparatchik, it would be hard to hear it as anything but a parodic evocation of golden age Soviet oratory, when smaller states existed for no other reason than for Moscow to tilt their internal conflicts on behalf of Soviet interests.
The point is, the fact Russian diplomats are trotting out this line now, long after it lost the military might to back it up, masks a profound weakness. Moscow is no longer able to project power the way it could during the Cold War. Regardless of its port in Tartus, or dispatching ships to the eastern Mediterranean, Russia cannot save Assad—not even from a disorganized rebel army that the Obama administration has disdained to support. It is only in diplomatic forums that the Russians are capable of managing any sort of protection for the Syrian president. The Russians are all show. And it is the Obama White House that has provided the stage.