On Syria, Moscow is driving the Barack Obama administration nuts. This is coercive diplomacy at its best.


With about three weeks to go for the UN General Assembly session to begin in New York, Russia abruptly stepped up its military intervention in Syria. The intervention is no longer ‘below-the-radar’. Moscow intended to create misgivings in the American mind. And it has succeeded.

Yet, no one in Washington knows what the Russian intentions are. The Russian statements have been assertive and rhetorical. It could be that

  • Moscow simply pre-empted a US-NATO military intervention on the cards; or,
  • Moscow has decided to directly enter the fight against the Islamic State which threatens Russia’s ‘soft underbelly’ in the Caucasus and Central Asia; or,
  • Moscow is beefing up the military capability of the Assad regime to ensure it does not pack up any time soon; or,
  • Russians are preparing for a long haul by setting up military bases; or,
  • With Ukraine crisis cooling off, Moscow has turned to Syria; or,
  • Moscow senses the mood in Western Europe is affected by the refugee flow and an opportune moment has arrived to isolate the United States; or,
  • Moscow is flexing muscles essentially to compel President Barack Obama to engage President Vladimir Putin at a meeting.

There could be merit in each of these arguments. But, it is the last factor that surges.

The point is, a full-throttle Russian military intervention in Syria is not financially sustainable for Moscow and it will not be popular domestically.

Russia will conceivably put ‘boots on the ground’ in the Middle East without a UN mandate. The bottomline, therefore, is that through an admixture of veiled threats, strategic posturing, blackmail and sheer bluster and timely diplomatic overtures, Kremlin is actually seeking a high-level Russian-American engagement regarding the Syrian conflict. Plainly put, Moscow is pressing for a meeting between Putin and Obama.

Moscow wants such a meeting because it also may open the door to a broader engagement between Russia and the United States, which might even incrementally lead to a ‘reset’ of the relationship. There will be some anxiety in Moscow as regards Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the US on September 24.

The core issue for Russia today is the western sanctions. Russia wants the process to begin leading to removal of western sanctions. It senses that the mood in ‘Old Europe’ is favoring normalization of ties with Russia.

In Ukraine, Moscow is putting forth exemplary behavior. The ‘Normandy Format’ is helping Russia to work on its broader relations with Germany and France. The big energy deals between Gazprom and European oil majors signed recently at the Eastern Economic Forum meet in Vladivostok constitute a significant signpost.

On the other hand, with the mounting refugee problem to cope with – on top of the Greek debt crisis, et al – Europe also wants to put Ukraine on the backburner. Kiev is already sensing the dull roar of a European retreat from Ukraine.

Most important, the Syrian question impacts European security. The Shengen visa system has been rolled back. A political solution needs to be found in Syria. For that to happen, Europe needs Russia’s cooperation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed that Europe and Russia should collaborate over Syria.

Conceivably, both Europe and Russia would at some point begin to visualize – that is, if they haven’t already – that the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are joined at the hips politically insofar as an altogether different mindset riveted on shared interests and common concerns has become necessary to resolve them.

However, much as Moscow cherishes the easing of tensions with Western Europe, it is only less than half the job done. Moscow’s objective has been and still is to draw Washington into a constructive engagement. The US is the superpower and in the ultimate analysis, it lays down the law for the West as a whole.

Put differently, nothing is final – neither in Ukraine nor in Syria – without President Obama signing in. In Moscow’s assessment, the neocons in the Obama administration call the shots as regards Russia ties and the president himself doesn’t take a ‘hands-on’ approach. It is an open secret that the neocons can’t stand Putin. Alas, Russia lacks any ‘soft power’ in the US, either.

Putin feels exasperated that his genuine desire for good relations between Russia and the West and his prioritization of Russia’s future as a modernizing European power are not properly understood in the US. This sense of exasperation gets reflected in Moscow’s rhetoric.

In the past week alone, Moscow spoke in diametrically opposite voices regarding Syria. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in an interview with the state television on Sunday all but alleged that the US has a secret agenda to foster the Islamic State.

Lavrov was warding off the criticism by Washington regarding the Russian presence in Syria. However, a day later, Russia’s ambassador to the UN in New York Vitaly Churkin, sang an entirely different tune.

Churkin claimed that Russia and the US are actually on the same page as regards the critical importance of the Assad regime staying in power so that the fight against the IS could be conducted optimally. The following excerpts of Churkin’s interview with the CBS News on Monday will testify to the complicated maneuvering by Moscow:

  • “I think this is one thing we share now with the United States, with the U.S. government: They don’t want the Assad government to fall. They don’t want it to fall. They want to fight (IS) in a way which is not going to harm the Syrian government. On the other hand, they don’t want the Syrian government to take advantage of their campaign against (IS.) But they don’t want to harm the Syrian government by their action. This is very complex”.
  • (Asked if the US position has got closer to the Russian view on Syria), “I think we have. They have made a lot great progress in understanding the complexities of the situation. To me, it is absolutely clear that…one of the very serious concerns of the American government now is that the Assad regime will fall and (IS) will take over Damascus and the United States will be blamed for that.”
  • (As regards Assad government’s role in negotiations), “They have to work with the government. We are not saying they have to sit at the same table necessarily with Assad, but they are the Syrian government and they need to work with them. They are fighting on the ground.”
  • “We are prepared to contemplate a Security Council resolution on (IS.) I had a number of conversations with my American colleague (Ambassador Samantha Power) when she was wondering whether they should go for a resolution or not and I was encouraging them to go for a resolution, but they decided do it without a resolution, simply making unilateral announcement.”
  • (On prospects of US-Russia ties), “With additional contacts, and if we make some progress on other issues, in our small way we are trying to contribute. If we can work together on this (Syria) it is going to be a small contribution. If somehow we generate political momentum and there is an opportunity for us to make a joint contribution to some progress on the Syrian crisis, that already is going to be a contribution. We will have to work on the implementation on the deal with Iran; this is another opportunity. Hopefully the crisis in Ukraine will be behind us before too long, so some of the irritants then will go away, and maybe a quiet, better atmosphere will be established for our relations.”

Most certainly, Russia’s position on Syria is much stronger today than at any time in the past year or two. For one thing, the tensions over Ukraine are easing, the ceasefire is holding and the focus is now on the diplomatic track. The beating of war drums between Russia and the NATO has all but died down, too. Suffice it to say, Russia has the space today to accelerate its politico-military thrust in Syria.

Contrary to the western and Gulf media projections, Assad is in no danger of an imminent defeat. In a dispatch from Damascus Monday, BBC’s Middle East Editor and an experienced observer of the region, Jeremy Bowen estimated that “Predictions of the imminent, or even medium-term fall of Damascus are wrong”.

All in all, Moscow is leaving to Obama hardly any option other than to engage Putin in direct talks. Whether Washington likes it or not, the sheer growing Russian presence on the ground in Syria has come to define the future scope of the airstrikes by the US and its allies. A US-Russia coordination at the operational level cannot be avoided. Having said that, Russia’s assertion that it will continue to give military aid to the Assad regime ensures that the regime agenda will remain a pipe dream.

Russia’s biggest advantage is that a political solution in Syria is exactly what Europe also is seeking. The war lobby has shrunk. Even GCC states have been noticeably muted in their reaction to the expanding Russian military presence in Syria. Actually, it becomes difficult to pillory Russia for strengthening the fight against the IS.

The game is more or less up for the Obama administration. The odds are that Obama will meet Putin in New York.

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