Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Russia and the Kerry-Lavrov agreement: the desire for stability

Since John Kerry reached an agreement to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons stockpile with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov last week, an extensive debate has emerged over whether the United States conceded its interests to those of a rival state.
  While some accuse Kerry of conceding to Moscow a decisive role in the dismantling process and sparing its ally of a US-led military intervention(http://world.time.com/2013/09/12/taking-lead-in-syria-talks-russia-works-to-preserve-assad-regime/) others have praised him for sparing the United States of a costly and unpopular conflict and fulfilling humanitarian commitments.

Less widely discussed, however is an indication that Russia's is willing to reign in the ambitions of its Syrian ally (and the use of the latter's most potent weapon)  out of a interest for a durable settlement
In an interview with TIME magazine, Andrei Klimov, the chairman of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, noted that the Syrian government had to be "pushed hard" a deal that would eliminate one of the most potent weapons in its cache. (http://world.time.com/2013/09/10/russias-syria-calculus-behind-moscows-plan-to-avert-u-s-missile-strikes/)
In describing the Russian rationale for forwarding the negotiation process, Klimov downplayed the benefits to the Assad regime , instead emphasizing Russia's desire to resolve a conflict which is "right near our (Russia's) borders2."
Though Russia's role as a primary arms supplier of the Assad regime3 seemingly undermines such assertion, the concerns expressed by Klimov are logical, given that Syria lies a mere 500 miles from Russia's volatile Caucasian frontier.
For one thing, the trajectory of events in Syria so far has seen the strengthening of Islamist groups-such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra front (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britain-and-us-fear-syrian-chemial-weapons-could-fall-into-the-hands-of-extreme-islamist-groups-8443222.html) -at the expense of genuine pro-democracy activists. This is a  result both of support for the former faction by Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar 5, eager for an opportunity to "check" an ally of rival Iran, and the increased polarization along sectarian divisions between the Alawi Shiites, like the Assad family, and Syria's Sunni majority (which had been carefully cultivated by Al-Assad when in power for the purpose of staving off the prospect of a unified opposition) .6
Since bearing witness to bitter separatist rebellions in the 1990s, Russian Federal Republics such as Chechnya and Dagestan have seen a growth of fundamentalist Salafism amongst their indigenous populations.4  Not surprisingly, polls by the Pew organization show that ordinary Russians worry more about radical Islam than any other major political concern (Pew facttank) and Vladimir Putin played lip service to this fear in his now-infamous New York Times op-ed from last week, in which he noted that Russian nationals have been present amongst the jihadist forces in Syria. (washington post)
 Even more worrying to the Kremlin, strategic allies of Russia such as Turkey (a crucial link in the supply line of Russian petroleum8) and Azerbaijan (a Commonwealth of Independent state member and major exporter of natural gas to Russia (worldpolreview)) stand in the frontline of the Syrian crisis and face the potential for greater destabilization from the conflict-through sectarian polarization(e.g. both Turkey and Azerbaijan have long been beset by tensions between Sunni- and Shia-aligned sects (see NYT , 10)) or an unmanageable influx of refugees (Al-monitor). And one can't forget troubled Egypt, the second most-popular destination for Russian tourists. (Tourismreview)
Though fear of Islamism may reinforce Russian support for Assad (brookings) it also negatively disposes Russia to grandstanding actions (e.g. Assad's chemical weapons use) that may escalate and radicalize the conflict-encouraging the spread of Sunni-Shia sectarianism and fundamentalism far beyond Syria's borders (e.g. through Saudi or Iranian military intervention or Islamic hijacking of chemical weapons' stockpiles). 

It should be added that one of the strongest motives underlying Russia's support of Syria is a desire-a core pillar of Putin era foreign policy-to restore Russia's status as a great power on the international stage11: upon reaching the negotiation table, Russia gains enough to give (more) than a little in working towards a constructive permanent settlement. Indeed, recent concerns about a faltering economy and corruption at home only give Putin a greater incentive as a man who can "get things done." http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/vladimir-putin-global-problem-solver/279700/

This is not to ignore the very tangible stake that Russia has in preserving the Assad regime (which include over 20 billion dollars worth of Russian business investments and a military alliance dating back to Soviet times). 11
But this does not make it any less willing to negotiate-even with its geopolitical rival such as the US- to reign in Assad where his actions threaten instability.
It should be added that the United States shares Russia's concerns about Islamist involvement in the Syrian opposition (e.g. Washington has labeled the Al-Nusra Front a "terrorist organization12"). A complete removal of Assad, moreover, would likely impair the security of Israel and ultimately America by resulting in an anarchic (Afghan/Lebanese style) fragmentation of the country along sectarian or political lines of the type that is conducive to breeding to terrorism.  (a means Daily Beast).
Contrary to typical American perception, diplomacy with Russia on the Syrian crisis offers a potential for a win-win situation. Should the Kerry-Lavrov plan proceed according to schedule, it provides a model for negotiation that could be applied to the conflict itself.   http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/15/us-syria-crisis-idUSBRE98A15720130915

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