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Moscow’s Leadership Gamble in Syria

Yesterday, Syrian Minister of Defense, Dawoud Rajha, visited Russia’s one and only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov, which was docked in his country’s port city of Tartous, Syria.

The visit comes at a time when the ruling al-Assad regime is gripped in a ten-month civil uprising, which has recently verged on civil war. The U.S., the European Union, and the U.N. have all accused Damascus for attacking its own people and refusing to take necessary political reform demanded by protesters. Both Washington and Brussels have issued economic sanctions, targeting specific members of the regime and have called for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation.

Closer to home, the Arab League intervened by sending in observers and repeatedly calling on all parties, both the government and armed opposition groups, to cease the violence. Furthermore, the Arab League also imposed a number of its own financial sanctions, banning travel and commercial flight service and business operations with Syria’s central bank. Even Turkey, Syria’s largest trading partner, has imposed a set of sanctions in November of last year.

And so, the recent arrival of Russian warships as a display of solidarity has been a welcomed gesture by Damascus. The Kuznetsov aircraft carrier was just one of a number of Russian naval vessels to visit Tartous and receive a warm reception from both local and national leaders.

Russia is one of Syria’s few remaining allies, publicly denouncing any such sanctions and calling these measures “counterproductive.” In addition to tempering international ire against Damascus, Russia has also fashioned itself as the chief architect for developing a solution between Damascus and its armed opposition groups. However, despite a show of support for the al-Assad regime, Moscow is striking a delicate balancing act. While standing by Damascus, Russia is also pushing the government to make necessary domestic reforms.

In it’s most recent effort, Russia announced that later this month it would roll out a “democracy package” to strike a deal between al-Assad and his opponents. According to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, this program would be modeled along the Yemeni deal between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opposition. Calling for patience, Lavrov has insisted that Syria too may find a peaceable resolution, just as Yemen did.

Becoming Syria’s Intercessor

Surprisingly, Russia’s rise as negotiator comes at the tacit approval of the West. While the U.S. and the EU have voiced their opposition to the al-Assad regime, they have allowed Moscow to serve as the chief architect in creating a resolution package for Syria, even if that means al-Assad and his allies remain in power.

While the U.S. is mired in its 2012 Presidential elections, many in the EU seem hesitant to become involved in yet another Middle Eastern uprising. Furthermore, compared to the West, Russia has better ground intelligence and understanding of Syrian internal issues, thanks to decades of close intergovernmental interactions with Syrian officials. However, despite a gentlemen’s agreement over Moscow’s leadership, Russia and the U.S. have still been butting heads over UN Security Council resolutions regarding Syria and other regional issues.

Last month, Russia circulated a draft resolution that condemned the violence committed by both the Syrian government and opposition forces. Lacking any calls for sanctions, the draft was quickly dismissed by the U.S. as not tough enough. Around the same time, Moscow caused another rift in Russia-U.S. relations when it submitted a resolution that called for the investigation of civilian deaths in Libya allegedly caused by NATO aerial bombings. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, described the resolution as a “cheap stunt” and a distraction from more pressing issues in the Middle East.

Allowing Russia to Lead

Russia’s role as a power broker in Syria is in stark contrast to its former role in Libya. Back in early 2011, after being courted by the West for its UN Security Council vote, Moscow’s interests were eventually elbowed out. Today, Russia finds itself as the lead role in settling the Syrian problem. And in all of this, the U.S. appears to be pursuing a contradictory policy: while Washington remains critical of al-Assad and any Russian UN resolutions that seem soft on the regime, the U.S. has tacitly approved of Russia’s intervention as negotiator for Damascus. The U.S. State Department has been remarkably silent on Russia’s involvement in Syria, even regarding the presence of Russian naval warships.

A possible explanation for such foreign policy is that there are limitations to American capabilities in the region. As it was in the case of Libya, where the U.S. took a back seat role in the removal of Gaddafi, Washington may once again be ceding responsibility to another capable regional power. Nevertheless, Russia may soon find that it has its own limitations in Syria. Despite a strong push by Moscow for prerequisite reforms, there has been little to no movement within Damascus for change or compromise with opposition forces.

With each passing day, as anger and violence in the street continues, a compromise that would include the current regime will dim as international rebuke increases. And very soon, Russia may find that no number of warships docked in Tartous will be able to maintain Moscow’s leverage in Syria.