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Edition 10 Volume 10 - March 08, 2012

Russia and Syria

Syrians have a long memory  - Murhaf Jouejati
By supporting the Assad regime, Russia is among a handful of states that are isolating themselves from the international community.

The Syrian crisis and its implications for Turkish-Russian relations  - Ziya Meral
How long can Turkey keep calm about Russian involvement in Syria?

Saudi Arabia and Russia: Settling old scores in Syria  - Madawi al-Rasheed
The Saudi regime is still very much dependent on projecting itself as the defender of Sunni Islam.

How do changes in the Middle East threaten Russia?  - Elena Suponina
The Russian ruling elite is alarmed by the possibility that what happened in the Middle East might transpire in Russia as well.

Syrians have a long memory
 Murhaf Jouejati

Assuming that the Assad regime is about to collapse--many indications support this assumption--Russian-Syrian relations are set to go south in the post-Assad era. This conclusion is based on what one Syrian opposition leader who prefers to remain anonymous described as "outrageous" Russian behavior throughout the Syrian uprising that began on March 15, 2011.

On February 4, 2012, Russia (along with China) vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime's crackdown on protests. The draft resolution also called on President Bashar Assad to step down. Confident, thanks to the veto, that external force would not be used against his regime, Assad exploited the Security Council's divisions by escalating his security forces' brutality. He hoped to crush Syria's protest movement, especially in the city of Homs where the uprising was centered, thereby adding hundreds of deaths to the thousands of Syrian civilian casualties. Six months ago, Russia (and China) vetoed an earlier draft resolution that threatened Damascus with targeted sanctions.

In both instances, Moscow argued that the draft resolutions were not balanced, and blamed the violence on the protest movement's armed elements, even though the latter are soldiers who preferred to defect rather than shoot at their civilian countrymen. Moscow further argued that the crisis in Syria would better be resolved by Syrians themselves through a political dialogue. Yet dialogue is impossible given the Assad regime's pursuit of what it calls "the security solution."

In between these two vetoes, and to emphasize Moscow's determination to support its beleaguered junior ally, a Russian flotilla led by an aircraft carrier docked in the Syrian port of Tartous, followed four days later by the Russian ship Chariot that carried what the Cypriot foreign ministry called "dangerous cargo". Furthermore, Moscow defiantly approved the sale to Syria of 36 YAK-130 advanced training jets worth $550 million.

By supporting the Assad regime throughout the Syrian crisis, Russia is among a handful of states that are isolating themselves from the international community.

To be sure, Russian justifications are not taken seriously. At play are Moscow's attempts to advance Russian interests. For decades, the former Soviet Union has been Syria's largest supplier of military hardware; Russia currently holds about $4 billion worth of contracts for future arms deliveries to Damascus. In these circumstances, Moscow is not prepared to drop its long-time Syrian client, especially now that it has lost arms sales to Iran following United Nations sanctions against that country. Furthermore, Russia is determined to maintain its grip on Tartous--the only port outside the former Soviet Union where Russian ships enjoy unique anchoring privileges.

Over and above all this, however, is the need for Moscow to reassert its authority. Presidential candidate Vladimir Putin was not about to defer to or show weakness vis-a-vis the West on the eve of Russian presidential elections. The crisis in Syria and western attempts to punish the Assad regime for its horrific human rights abuses were an excuse and an opportunity for Moscow to display its displeasure with NATO's Libya operation. Moscow felt hoodwinked by NATO forces whose military intervention ultimately forced regime change in that country--a step beyond the UN Security Council's mandate to protect Libyan civilians from the late Muammar Gaddafi's murderous security forces. In sum, Russia needed to beat its chest and flex its muscles so as to reassert its global influence--at the expense of hundreds of Syrian civilian lives.

In so doing, Russia has positioned itself on the wrong side of history. The crisis in Syria is not a conflict between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime but between the regime and the majority of the Syrian people. Further, it is part and parcel of the "Arab spring" in which the masses, from Morocco to Bahrain, have, with varying degrees of success, revolted against their tyrannical rulers. Moscow, in its obstinate support of the Assad regime, may have gambled on the wrong horse. Despite the cosmetic political reforms that Assad says he will soon implement and that Putin himself thinks "should have been carried out long ago", indications are that the Assad regime will collapse. The security option the Assad regime adopted has only served to amplify the crisis.

With presidential elections behind him, president-elect Putin faces less pressure to demonstrate his bravado to his domestic constituency. The hope is that he will shift gears and join the rest of the international community in bringing relief to the Syrian people. The meeting that Russia's foreign minister is reportedly set to hold with his Arab counterparts in the next few days provides such a forum. Even then, however, the long shadow Moscow has cast over future Russian-Syrian relations is there to stay. Syrians have a long memory: they will not forget easily, or soon, that Russia was a willing accomplice in the murder of innocent Syrian civilians.-Published 8/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Murhaf Jouejati is professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University's NESA Center for Strategic Studies. He also teaches at The George Washington University and is a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

The Syrian crisis and its implications for Turkish-Russian relations
 Ziya Meral

On Tuesday, during his weekly speech to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) group in the Turkish parliament, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his strong statements on Syria. While his call for humanitarian corridors to bring aid to Syrian people captured international attention, his talk also included an indirect yet equally strong challenge to third party countries involved in the crisis.

After expressing his grave concern over the escalation of violence against civilians, the Turkish premier unleashed a heavy criticism of countries that "passively watch", "give permission to" or "encourage" what is happening in Syria. He warned that their hesitancy to provide a solution will be "a dark stain in their history" and that the "single drop of the blood of an innocent child is many times [more important] than any kind of strategy, power and self-interested ambitions."

While Erdogan and the Turkish government regularly make clear their stand on the atrocities of Syrian President Bashar Assad and overtly criticize the failures of international bodies, their references to specific countries behind such failures are almost always indirect--albeit increasingly strong and loud.

Turkish reluctance to publicly name these countries--i.e., Russia and Iran--is understandable. As Turkey tries to navigate through its soft cold war with Iran amidst attempts to galvanize nuclear negotiations, it simply cannot afford to clash with Iran publicly. A similar reason explains why Turkey has limited its criticism of Russian involvement with Syria to closed door conversations and indirect public language.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey in 2004, he was the first Russian head of state to visit the country in 32 years. Subsequent high-level visits between the two countries resulted in the signing of a joint declaration in 2009 between Putin's successor President Dmitry Medvedev and President Abdullah Gul, as well as the creation of the High-Level Cooperation Council in May 2010.

The council aims to enhance economic, diplomatic and cultural relations between the two countries. In line with the aims of the council, in January 2011 foreign ministers Ahmet Davutoglu and Sergey Lavrov signed the Strategic Planning Group Meeting Protocol and, one year later, the second meeting of the planning group was held in Moscow with Davutoglu's participation.

All of these high-level structures are starting to show themselves in hard currency. The trade volume between Russia and Turkey rose from $11 billion in 2004 to $25 billion in 2010. Both countries have declared a commitment to increase trade to the value of $100 billion dollars by 2015.

However, just as the so-called "Arab spring" has soured the budding romance between Syria and Turkey, there are underlying anxieties over how long Turkey can keep calm about Russian involvement in Syria.

From the Turkish point of view, Russian interests in Syria are thin. A small symbolic naval base, seemingly lucrative yet limited arms sales, and assertion of the usual bravado of "standing against colonial western interventionism" are no compensation for what Russia stands to lose through its dangerous Syria policy.

In contrast, for Turkey, what happens next in Syria represents more than a distant humanitarian crisis. With a lengthy land border between the two countries, the implications of a large-scale refugee influx, the potential of a prolonged civil war, all the ills that come with having a failed state as a neighbor, and the possible spillover of Syrian unrest into Turkey, the Syria question is a top foreign policy concern for Turkey.

The AKP government adopted a strong public stand against the Assad regime and burned bridges painstakingly built since 1999 as soon as it became clear that the Assad family would not pursue reforms and stop its violence. Turkey embraced great economic losses in the process, but it has stuck to its position that the Assad regime must go and championed many of the international initiatives against the regime.

Will Turkey soon adopt a similar bold stand against Russia, which has direct culpability in the deaths of thousands of innocent Syrians? The answer is: not likely. Turkey is pursuing quiet and friendly pressure on Russia to change Moscow's position. The last example of this were the recent gentle statements by President Gul, who said that ultimately Russia will see that it has no choice but to join diplomatic efforts to force Assad from his post.

When Russia will finally accept this path and what kind of solution it will back is far from clear. Now that the predestined Russian elections are over, a teary-eyed Putin might indeed be moved to heed Erdogan's exhortation that the blood of an innocent child is much more valuable than any possible short-term benefits Russia might achieve from the suffering of Syrians. If this kind of argument does not work, Putin might otherwise soon accept that Russia stands to lose far more than it will ever gain by backing Assad.-Published 8/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ziya Meral is a London-based esearcher and author of the report "Prospects or Turkey".

Saudi Arabia and Russia: Settling old scores in Syria
 Madawi al-Rasheed

Defeating Russia in the Arab world was a priority for Saudi Arabia even before it became a fully-fledged commitment in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The current Syrian crisis is perhaps one last opportunity to undermine Russia's eroded sphere of influence in the region. The Saudis may think that defeating Russia this time in Syria could add fresh vigor to their old mythology about defeating atheism in the world and supporting Sunni Muslims globally. While Russia has changed in the last two decades, the Saudi regime is still very much dependent on projecting itself as the defender of Sunni Islam. Such claims are enough to worry the Russians in their own backyard.

Russia's insistence on rejecting calls at the United Nations Security Council for the overthrow of Syrian leader Bashar Assad or militarily intervention against him reflects agony over letting go of its last Arab ally. Arguably, there is more to the Russian position than the loss of a Mediterranean naval base and arms deals. It seems that Russia does not want to create a historical precedent where oppressed Muslim protestors seek international and Muslim solidarity against their dictators. The troubled Chechnya and Northern Caucasus region remain a threat to Russian security.

As a result, Russia's troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia has a lot to do with its own internal challenges, mainly the remaining Muslim population under central Russian control where endorsement of global jihadi strategies, ideologies, and iconography has been visible since the 1990s. Saudi ideological and religious connections to groups that challenge Russian policies continue to haunt Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin decades after the end of the Afghan jihad. In the minds of many Russians, "wahabiyya" is an evil religion that can produce the likes of Ibn al-Khattab and strike terrorist attacks in the heart of Moscow.

It may come as a surprise then that Moscow--rather than London or Washington--was the first to recognize Saudi occupation of the Hijaz and open a consulate in Jeddah in 1927. The ex-Soviet Union had internal reasons for this unexpected presence in the land of the two holy mosques. At a time when Muslims in the Soviet republics were being told to free themselves from the chains of religion, their Communist central government was trying to build bridges in a region where a substantial number of Soviet Muslim exiles from Chechnya, the Caucasus and the Central Asian republics had previously migrated in search of refuge after successive Russian repressions. The Hijaz was a destination for many Soviet Muslims seeking to escape Russian and Stalinist experiments at banishing religion from people's lives. A Russian foothold in Jeddah was desirable, then, to remain in touch with potential intrigues and appease local Soviet ethnic Muslims.

The rift between communism and Islam, magnified by decades of cold war politics, facilitated Saudi enlistment in defeating the "evil empire" in the Arab world first. From Egypt, Yemen, and Iraq to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia became active in eroding the Soviet Union's expansion in the region. After the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saudi Arabia endeavored to bring his successor, Anwar Sadat, into the Arab-US camp thus weakening Russian influence. In Iraq and Libya, Saudi policy often blamed the Russians for backing the radical politics of these regimes.

Saudi-Russian relations entered a new phase of animosity with the Afghan jihad. For a decade, the image of the godless communists occupying and repressing fellow Muslims enflamed the Saudi imagination and gave the Saudi regime a great opportunity to demonstrate its Islamic credentials through active support. Even today, the memory of Saudi participation in the Afghan jihad remains alive among old jihadi veterans, who commemorate it in vivid online iconography and songs. The Saudi regime boasts about its wise religiously-driven policy to defeat atheism and tries to forget that this jihad backfired, haunting it afterwards.

In Saudi Arabia, Assad's regime is likewise being depicted as a godless dictatorship, the last remaining heretical minority state that oppresses Sunni Muslims while supported by the Russians. Many Saudi religious scholars have already called for beheading Assad, if captured, and launching a global Islamic jihad against his Alawite troops. For many Saudis, the Syrian revolution is a religious war against blasphemy, repression and heresy.

Saudi Arabia was initially hesitant to recognize the Syrian National Council, arm the Free Syrian Army, or support calls for jihad in Syria made by the likes of religious scholar Aaidh al-Qarni. By February 2012, however, the Saudis took a strong position against Assad, with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal declaring that arming the Syrian rebels was an excellent idea. This came when the "Friends of the Syrian People" international conference, attended by 60 countries, was held in Tunis.

Saudi Arabia rejected Tunisian President Munsif al-Marzouqi's suggestion that the Syrian crisis be ended through negotiations, safe exit for Assad, and the formation of a transitional government along the lines of the Saudi-backed agreement in Yemen. Al-Faisal actually walked out of the conference upon hearing these ideas.

Al-Faisal's position can only be interpreted as a diplomatic statement obfuscating his country's plans to arm the Syrian rebels despite a lack of international consensus. To this end, long-standing links to the Hariri dynasty across the border in Lebanon will undoubtedly prove useful, not least because of shared animosity towards the Syrian regime. The most likely transit point for arms and jihadis alike is the deprived Akkar area of northern Lebanon, with its neglected Sunni population. On Youtube, Syrian rebels have already circulated images of the "King Abdullah Brigade" allegedly formed to honor the kingdom's commitment to overthrowing Assad and arming Syrian revolutionaries.

This will no doubt be a very risky policy unleashing old familiar radical forces and precipitating a long civil war, ethnic cleansing and sectarian strife in Syria and neighboring countries.

Russia's rejection of such futuristic plans can only be understood in the context of its own internal challenges and the historical legacy of its troubled relationship with the Saudi regime. The memory of Saudi religious and military interventions in Russia's backyard continues to haunt Russian leaders.

It is unfortunate for the Syrians that their revolution has become the terrain where old scores are settled, among them Saudi-Russian rivalries.-Published 8/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Madawi al-Rasheed is a professor at King's College in London.

How do changes in the Middle East threaten Russia?
 Elena Suponina

A March 7 visit to Saudi Arabia was going to be Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's first foreign trip after the Russian presidential election. The purpose was to meet colleagues from the Arab Persian Gulf countries. Despite the date having been publicized, the trip ended up being postponed.

What Lavrov was hoping to discuss with his Arab counterparts was the crisis in Syria. In February, Russia expressed interest in a consultation on this matter. Yet Saudi King Abdullah's response was not just a stark "no" but a reprimand. In a phone conversation with then-President Dmitri Medvedev and in subsequent comments, His Majesty criticized Russia for joining China in vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria on October 5, 2011 and again on February 4.

At the moment, the sides are laboring to overcome the controversy and find common ground. Nonetheless, it seems that the Arabs still prefer to wait and see whether Russia changes its position on Syria in the near future.

The model the Arab rulers are used to--offering Russia their cooperation in exchange for its mediation efforts in Syria--will not work here. It is not because of economic considerations, military contracts (which are not that significant) or the so-called Tartus naval base (which is more like a repair and supply store) hosting Russia's warships that Russian politicians are worried about Syria.

One real ground for concern is what lurks beyond Syria, in a country with which Russia is far more involved: Iran. Another is Syria's geopolitical significance for Russia. In parallel, the Kremlin is worried about disruption of the system of international relations that has functioned since the end of WWII.

Russia's right of veto in the Security Council, which it inherited from the Soviet Union and shares with four other nuclear powers, is part of that system. Yet Russia keeps noticing with concern that the world is changing in ways it never envisioned, for example in Yugoslavia and Iraq. Alas, all too often its voice goes unheard. In fact, at times its involvement leads to effects that are as unexpected as they are undesired, as was the case with Libya in 2011.

Russia tries its best to resist other powers' designs--at times without investing much effort in analyzing them. For instance, its 2005 protest against the demand on Syria to withdraw troops from Lebanon was largely an attempt to stand up to the US and France, who were both pushing for the forced withdrawal. Anti-American attitudes lingering from the Cold War, as well as a general distrust of the West and the US in particular, play a role here. "The US is our chief enemy. They are gearing up for a war against us. Once Syria falls, Iran will be next, then the South Caucasus will be destabilized, then the North Caucasus", stated the Liberal-Democratic presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky in February. The Communist Gennadiy Zuganov, likewise a presidential candidate, expressed a similar view.

Right-wing candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, while not anti-American, said he fears something else: he believes that the Syrian opposition is thoroughly Islamic. This Russian oligarch's insight into Middle East politics is so limited that he has referred to Syria, the authoritarian state ruled for the past 40 years by the Assad family clan, as "the last secular, non-Muslim country in the Middle East".

Another factor that helps make Russian policy in the rapidly-changing Middle East inconsistent, contradictory and difficult to predict is the political situation within Russia. But is political stability possible, given the mass demonstrations both for and against the recent election winner, Vladimir Putin? Despite his victory, this question remains open.

As for foreign policy, there were a few cases when then-President Medvedev was much more sympathetic to the West's course of action in the Middle East than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Back in 2010, Medvedev prohibited the sale of C-300 missile launch pads to Iran, despite the foreign ministry's statement that Security Council Resolution 1929, outlining new sanctions against Iran, did not explicitly mention such deals, so that the sale would not have been a violation.

Zuganov remarked at the time, in reference to Medvedev's policy: "Russia bows down to the United States, but this ill serves her. In today's Russian policy, we can see the dangerous signs of 'Gorbachevism'. And does anyone need to be reminded that [General Secretary Mikhail] Gorbachev's endless concessions ultimately led to the breakdown of the Soviet Union?" (After offering Iran as an example, the Communist leader went on to complain about Russia's imports of Boeing aircraft and chicken legs from the US, which, in his opinion, "destroyed the Russian airplane industry and agriculture".)

Today, Vladimir Putin is showing his constituents that Russia will push its own policy in the Middle East, including Syria, irrespective of the West. Given that this was part of his recent election campaign and not a national strategy, what is of interest here is the attitude itself, not the end results of such a policy. And these, one must admit, are hardly satisfactory: Russia has already failed as a mediator in Libya and is unlikely to succeed at preventing the fall of Bashar Assad's regime.

Since the very onset of the "Arab spring", Russian political analysts have split into two camps: those who attribute the revolutions to an international conspiracy and those who believe that these changes spring from within the societies in question. The latter point out accumulated socio-economic controversies and outdated political systems. One can often observe that if a Russian commentator welcomes the changes, he or she leans towards the organic intra-societal change explanation, whereas a political analyst rejecting the changes is likely to believe in foreign intervention and conspiracy.

Some combine the two versions; noted academic Yevgeniy Primakov is a case in point. In one of his recent articles, he conceptualizes the events in Egypt and Tunisia in socio-economic terms while asserting that in Libya and Syria "from the onset, there was armed struggle against the rulers." Primakov continues, "Who handed out the arms and advocated for their use will, I am certain, become clear with time," adding that "the events in Syria, as well as in Libya, do not match the idea of the 'Arab spring' as [constituting] mass demonstrations against totalitarian governments."

On the eve of the Russian presidential election, many pro-government politicians and political scientists, as well as loyal opposition members, spoke a great deal of the dangers--not only to Arab countries, but to Russia as well--of foreign conspiracies. National television channels regularly broadcast films about the 1917 revolution, with hints that it was primarily carried out by the Jews, bribed by the German, British and American intelligence services.

Further, the dangers of civil war are being promoted by invoking not only the 1918-1920 Civil War in Russia but also the armed resistance in Syria, continuing insurgency in Libya and terror attacks in Iraq. The Russian Orthodox Church has joined in, too, admonishing Russians that, "Every revolution is nothing but a sin against God and against the government. You rabble-rousers will get nothing but chaos, blood, hunger and death."

Indeed, since the very beginning of the Arab spring, the Russian ruling elite has been alarmed by the possibility that what happened in the Middle East might transpire in Russia as well. For instance, on February 22, Medvedev, speaking to security forces, pointed out the dangers of "breakup into small pieces" of a number of Middle Eastern countries, of "fanatics coming to power" and of "fires that would keep burning for decades" in that region. "It is the same scenario they have been preparing for us, too, even before this started. Now there is a greater chance they will try to make this happen," the president warned, though, "In any case, their plot will not succeed."

Notably, public opinion surveys carried out around this time (by the Russian Public Opinion Center among others) showed that only two percent of Russians attributed the Arab uprisings to provocations by western intelligence services. Around 45 percent of Russian citizens believed, conversely, that the main reason the Arabs were dissatisfied was the poor quality of life in their countries, including economic and political stagnation and corruption. Many of those surveyed indicated that Russia faced similar problems.

These problems and the way they are addressed in the near future will determine Russian foreign policy.-Published 8/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Elena Suponina is a Russian political scientist and Middle East expert.

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