Engage or Delay, Either Way Russia wins on Syria

As Mark noted below, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it was ready to support a resolution in the UN Security Council fully backing Kofi Annan’s mission to Syria. The former Secretary-General’s role as a joint UN-Arab League Envoy has previously been endorsed by Russia in a meeting with the Arab League’s foreign ministers in Cairo, but this is the first time they’ve expressed willingness to issue a resolution on the matter.

On its surface, the declaration seems like a big win for those who wish to see the violence in Syria halted; a strong backing of Kofi Annan would meet his request for the Security Council speaking “with one voice” and strengthen his hand in negotiations. However, there could be more than meets the eye surrounding Russia’s change of heart. First of all, Russia has made clear once again that any resolution should refrain from being an ultimatum to the Syrian government, a declaration that is likely to stick in the opposition’s craw.

Second, the promise of a new resolution takes the wind out of the sails of a French-drafted Presidential Statement that was to be discussed today. The statement, which I’ve seen a copy of, was as strongly worded as to be expected considering French Foreign Minister Juppe has said that Assad staying in power is a “red-line” for any draft. In it, the Security Council would endorse Annan’s Six Point Plan for Syria, but also maintain the West’s call for a political transition. It’s unlikely that the West will spend much needed political capital to gain passage of this non-binding Presidential Statement over gaining approval of a resolution.

Third, the Russian negotiating position has been strengthened both rhetorically and tactically in the past 24 hours. Rhetorically, Russia has long insisted that the government of Bashar al-Assad is under siege from armed gangs and terrorists, much along the lines of the arguments Damascus has been making. In terms of a resolution, Russia’s position has been that the government and opposition be blamed equally for the violence, to the consternation of the West. Moscow’s view that the opposition is something to be feared got a boost in this morning’s open letter from Human Rights Watch to the Syrian National Council, which calls out human rights abuses of the opposition, including kidnapping, torture, and execution. While the government’s actions are an order of magnitude greater in terms of sheer numbers, the HRW letter seriously erodes the moral high ground of the opposition.

Tactically, news came out yesterday that the Russian naval base at Tartus has received a new ship, a naval tanker. The Iman came bearing a team of armed Russians, labeled a counter-terrorism unit by Interfax, which immediately provoked concern that the troops were there to aid the Assad regime’s crackdown. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, along with the Russian Ministry of Defense, rebutted that claim, saying the Iman was bearing an anti-piracy security team. Veracity of either explanation aside, the incident serves as a reminder to those considering armed intervention of Russia’s interests in Syria.

Today’s offer to negotiate on a new resolution could very well be the start of a new push to get an internationally binding show of support for Annan’s mission, propelling him to success. Or the whole thing could be another stall tactic from Moscow attempting to gain the upper hand once again. That would be wholly unnecessary: Russia already holds the upper hand no matter what happens.