Syria, Libya, and Russia’s Retreat from “Reset”

The last thing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev did before departing for France to attend this week’s Group of Eight summit meeting in Deauville was place a call to Damascus.

Prima facie, one may think the call made sense, since, as Reuters reported, “Syria’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests” is going to be high on the agenda of the summit.  But Medvedev had other thoughts on his mind; he wanted to ostentatiously pick up the thread from his previous conversation with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad on April 6.

According to the Kremlin statement, Medvedev on that occasion expressed Moscow’s “support for the Syrian leadership’s plans to carry out the internal reforms announced by Mr Assad in order to prevent the situation in the country from deteriorating, prevent human casualties, and maintain civil peace”.

According to reports, the casualty figure in Syria may since be approaching four digits and civil peace is in serious disarray.  During his call on Tuesday, however, Medvedev repeated Moscow’s “principled position regarding the events in Syria and around it” and expressed the “hope that the reforms launched by Mr Assad will be implemented by the Syrian leadership dynamically and in a broad dialogue with the Syrian public”.

In response, Assad told Medvedev that he was “doing and will continue to do everything that guarantees the peaceful free expression of Syrian citizens’ will.  At the same time, the Syrian leadership does not intend to allow the activities of radical and fundamentalist groups”.

Only last Thursday United States President Barack Obama threateningly handed down an existential choice to Assad — preside over a peaceful transition of power in Syria or be ousted from power.  Obama didn’t exactly say that Assad’s fate would be the same as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, but he likely meant something to that effect.

The point is, Medvedev and Assad have shown Obama the finger.  Yet, Medvedev is scheduled to have a face-to-face meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the G-8 gathering on Thursday.

One could call this tit-for-tat.  Medvedev no doubt suffered a blow to his prestige from his decision to abstain during the voting on Libya in the United Nations Security Council, overruling the advice of highly professional Russian diplomats that Resolution 1973 was deeply flawed in many respects and was open to varying interpretations in the downstream.  In retrospect, Medvedev gambled on behind-the-scene assurances held out by Western powers, and he lost face.

The Russian strategic community is aghast that the “coalition of willing” under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has since militarily intervened in Libya and is about to bring about regime change.  Moscow’s protests have been coolly ignored by Western powers.

To rub salt into the wound, France has extended invitation after invitation to Russia to join its contact group (“Friends of Libya”), despite Moscow questioning the legitimacy of such an enterprise that lacks a UN mandate.

Meanwhile, Moscow faces a fait accompli, having to scramble to adjust to the new realities of Western powers forcing a regime change in Tripoli.  A representative of the Libyan opposition was received by Lavrov in Moscow on Monday.  Following the meeting, Lavrov recognized the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) as a “legitimate partner”.

The Russian position has consistently been that “all political forces and tribes” should be involved in any future talks.  Moscow may be estimating that it is better placed to advocate a peace plan and play a role in the forthcoming transition of power in Tripoli by having contacts with both the Libyan government and the opposition.  (Gaddafi’s envoys too visited Moscow last week for talks.)

However, the TNC has already begun crowing about Moscow according it “recognition”, to which Western chancelleries must be smirking.  TNC spokesman Abdel Rahman Shalgham told journalists in Moscow after his meeting with Lavrov: “We [the TNC and Russia] have a mutual understanding on the issue of recognizing the transitional government in Benghazi.  The fact that I was received in Moscow by the Russian foreign minister speaks of the role and importance of the council.”

He has a point, no doubt.  Shalgham also said the opposition would not hold any talks with Gaddafi.

Evidently, Moscow kept the visit by the TNC official low-key, while it also decided to pay the US back.  Even as the TNC man came to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, Lavrov scheduled yet another meeting with Arab visitors — a composite Palestinian delegation of the leadership of Fatah and Hamas and five other groups that arrived in Moscow over the weekend.  Unlike the semi-official session with Shalgham, Lavrov had a structured meeting with the Palestinian leaders.

Lavrov took the occasion to speak at length on the recent unity pact between Fatah and Hamas that was brokered by Egypt and signed in Cairo this month.  He said the agreement had “historic significance” and Russia welcomed its content and would be supportive of its implementation.

Russia has taken a position on Fatah-Hamas unity that is diametrically opposed to the views expressed by Obama.  Lavrov said the Cairo pact was “designed to establish favorable conditions” for resuming negotiations with Israel and underscored that Russia “actively contributed to the mediation efforts of Egypt”.  Meanwhile, Russian commentators lost no time in poking fun at Obama’s Middle East speech last Thursday.

A seasoned Moscow commentator on the Middle East wrote: “Six months into the Arab Spring, Obama has finally taken the trouble to spell out his country’s policy in the Arab world, but he hasn’t gone anywhere beyond that.  His speech . . . was not even close to a Cairo-2.  In 2009, he told students at Cairo University he was going to shake up the Middle East, make friends with the Arabs and achieve peace; but none of that came to pass.”

The sherpas at the G-8 will have a hard time bringing Russia on board on Libya and Syria.  Maybe, on the Palestinian issue Russia could share some common ground with European opinion, which also in principle welcomes Palestinian unity, but it will be interesting to see if the G-8 could bring itself to say something positive about the accord between Fatah and Hamas.  Indeed, the US has upheld Israel’s strong objections to the accord.

Medvedev’s conversation with Assad on Tuesday signifies both an assurance of support to the Syrian leader as well as an early warning to Western powers at the G-8 that Russia would have a problem going along with any threatening noises against Damascus.

Once already — at his press conference in Moscow on May 17 — Medvedev has asserted that he would not allow a UN resolution authorizing sanctions against Syria to pass “even if my friends are going to beg me to”.  What he meant was that he was prepared to be in a minority of one at Deauville.

These Middle Eastern discords do not provide a conducive setting for Obama and Medvedev to have a fruitful meeting at Deauville.  It appears that Moscow has already estimated that Medvedev’s meeting with Obama is not going to produce any significant forward movement on the missile defense issue.

Although the Russian president recently declared that a failure to agree on “a model of cooperation in anti-missile defense” would result in “the kind of scenario that would throw us back into the Cold War era”, Washington has nothing new to offer to Moscow.

The Deauville meeting will be a turning point.  It will reveal whether or not the US-Russia “reset” policy is still holding.  Clearly, the two sides are no longer able to build on the “reset”.  The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty cannot be followed up and breaking the deadlock in arms control involving tactical nuclear weapons is proving difficult because of disagreements over missile defense.

Arguably, US-Russia cooperation over Iran and Afghanistan has also touched an optimal level already and in any case it alone cannot be the locomotive of the “reset”.

Overarching all this is the growing perception in the US that the Medvedev era may be drawing to a close by next year, which acts as a disincentive to build on the cooperative momentum of the “reset” and instead simply manage the uncertain partnership.

Anyhow, in immediate terms, Moscow’s stance on the Middle East — Libya and Syria in particular — underpins the retreat from “reset”.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.  His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.  This article was first published in Asia Times on 26 May 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  Cf. “Medvedev Sums Up G8 Summit” (Voice of Russia, 27 May 2011); “G8 Leaders Vow Financial, Other Support for ‘Arab Spring'” (RIA Novosti, 27 May 2011); “In Diplomatic Shift, Russia Calls for Gadhafi to Step Down” (CNN, 27 May 2011); Ellen Barry, “In Shift, Russia Offers to Help Guide Qaddafi Out” (New York Times, 27 May 2011); “W.H. Touts Russia’s Movement against Libya” (Politico, 27 May 2011).

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