Do Russia and America really disagree on Syria?

Mark N. Katz

While America (along with many others in the West and the Arab World) have called for the imposition of UN Security Council economic sanctions against Syria’s Assad regime, Russia (along with China) had blocked them.  This is just one more sign that Syria is becoming an increasingly serious bone of contention between Washington and Moscow.

But is it really?  The level of Russian-American recrimination over Syria has certainly increased dramatically.  The Kremlin, however, may have several reasons to believe that the Obama Administration does not actually want to see the downfall of the Assad regime—and that Washington thus finds Russia’s opposition to Security Council resolutions against Syria, which the U.S. supports publicly, to be quite useful.  There are three reasons why Moscow might well think this:

First, America’s ally, Israel, is extremely wary of what the downfall of the Assad regime would mean for it.  Israeli leaders are fearful that the Arab Spring will not result in a friendly democratic government, but a hostile Sunni radical regime arising in Syria instead.  And Israel, as Moscow well knows, has considerable influence in Washington.  An Interfax report of February 15 about Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov’s consultations with Israeli Foreign Ministry and National Security Council officials suggested that Russia and Israel do not disagree on Syria.  Indeed, Gatilov’s insistence that the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict “should not be neglected amid political changes ongoing in the Arab world” is a viewpoint that the Israeli government strongly agrees with.

Second, the Obama Administration has made clear that it does not want to intervene militarily in Syria.  Obama has withdrawn U.S. forces from Iraq and has announced that they will leave Afghanistan in 2014.  Although Moscow loudly complained about the degree of U.S. intervention that took place in Libya last year, it undoubtedly saw that Obama, under the guise of “leading from behind,” handed the mission off to Britain and France as soon as he could.  Especially in an election year, Obama does not want to risk getting bogged down in a conflict in Syria.  Republican politicians on the campaign trail might say that they are willing to intervene—but when it comes down to making a decision to do so would probably be even more sensitive than the Obama Administration to Israeli concerns about destabilizing Syria.

Third, however effective they sometimes may be in the long run, the Russians are well aware that economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council are unable to induce authoritarian rulers to halt the use of force against their opponents in the short run.  Therefore, they regard the call by the U.S. and other governments for economic sanctions against Syria as being largely symbolic and not substantive.  By Washington calling for economic sanctions and not military intervention, Moscow understands that the U.S. wants to be seen as “doing something” about Syria when in fact it really does not want to do anything.

It was not surprising, then, that Sergey Karaganov, chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, told Interfax on February 10 that, “It is the Sunni Arab regimes, and not the West…who are trying to ‘overturn’ Syria.”

For if the U.S. was serious about toppling the Assad regime, Russian observers have noted, it would assemble a “coalition of the willing” to intervene in Syria without waiting for UN Security Council approval—just as it did in Kosovo during the Clinton Administration and Iraq during the Bush Administration.  A Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial of February 14 speculated that if Russia and China had vetoed the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone in Libya last year instead of abstaining on it, the U.S. and some of its allies would have intervened anyway.

While fully aware that Russia cannot block the U.S. from taking stronger measures to oust the Assad regime, Moscow is happy that the Obama Administration cites Russian (and Chinese) opposition as an excuse for not doing so.  For this public American deference makes Russia (and China) appear stronger and more influential than if the U.S. acted unilaterally instead.

This Russian view of the Obama Administration’s policy toward the Syrian crisis is highly cynical.  Most unfortunately, it may also be highly accurate.

Mark N. Katz teaches at George Mason University and is the author of  Leaving Without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan

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