Past Publications

Sep 30, 2013

Russia and the Case of Syria

In the diplomatic struggle around the civil war, Moscow has brought itself back into play on the international stage

Russia and the US have jointly passed a UN resolution on Syria demanding that Damascus eliminate its chemical weapons. The text they adopted contains no threat of force. With it, the Kremlin has managed to underline its role in the Middle East, to strengthen the UN Security Council, and to negotiate on an equal footing with the US. Ewald Böhlke comments here on Russia’s position in international law, the country’s plans in Syria, and the sharpening of Moscow’s profile as a stabilizing power.



How did its experience of the deployment in Libya influence Russia in the current conflict?

Russia has no warm memories whatsoever of the “crisis management” undertaken at that time in cooperation with the West. Moscow agreed to the UN Security Council’s Libya resolution in order to establish humanitarian corridors. But NATO reached far beyond this goal and instead precipitated regime change. From a Russian point of view, the West abused the resolution in order to push through its own interests. In doing so, moreover, it devalued international law and distorted the meaning of the veto principle, which should help form consensus within the Security Council.

The experience in Libya has led to a paradoxical situation in the Syrian case. Russia and China initially threatened to use their veto power on the council in order to prevent a military operation in Syria. In doing so they highlighted their insistence on the principle of sovereignty and emphasized that only the UN Security Council could decide on the use of military force. The US, France, and Great Britain, on the other hand, hold that the very structure of the Security Council prevents effective humanitarian intervention. As a result, they placed their own democratic legal system before that of the UN as a basis for legitimacy – and in this way weakened international law.

Moreover: Heads of state and government may now be consulting their legislatures, but they will ultimately make their decisions on their own. International policy experts have long decried this as a sign of moral decay, but in the end it really is just a matter of answering the question of how our president is feeling today. That all-too-familiar discipline of  “Kremlin astrology” is acquiring a partner field: “White House astrology.”

The Russian initiative to remove Syrian chemical weapons and the Syria resolution unanimously cleared by the UN have now made it possible to bridge extreme differences and give diplomacy a new chance. In the continued absence of UN reform, however, the fundamental question will remain unanswered: how should the international community address internal national conflicts?

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad appears to be complying with his new responsibilities. Do the Russians have a plan for what could happen next in the country?

The agreement made in Geneva on September 14 between the US and Russia detailing the dismantling and destruction of Syrian chemical weapons contains many operative steps that must be taken before full disarmament can be reached. President Assad has to accept the agreed-upon course of action; otherwise he will have failed completely as a dialogue partner. The first step here was the disclosure within the required timeframe of documentation on chemical weapons factories and storage.

But for the removal and destruction of chemical weapons, Assad must now open up his territory to international inspectors and security forces. This will most likely take place within the framework of a UN mission. Russia has already declared its willingness to take part. It would be an enormous step forward if it succeeds in implementing the Russian-American disarmament plan, in that it would remove weapons of mass destruction from the Syrian conflict. This would not be enough, however, to bring the civil war to an end.

What are some of the effects of the conflict on the region?

The Iranian president Hassan Rouhani recently brought his country into play, offering to serve as a broker between the two Syrian parties in the conflict. This suggestion sheds light on Iran’s ambitions as a regional power. Up until now, Tehran has been party to one side of the domestic conflict in Syria – Iranian special forces and Hezbollah militias supported by Iran have been fighting on behalf of the Assad regime and the Shiite minority. Now, however, Iran is apparently no longer only interested in serving as a protection force for the Shiites.

Tehran’s newfound role in the Syrian civil war is bringing agitation to the larger ongoing religious conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. In Syria the power dynamic between the religious groups is becoming more even. Now, in addition to Russia and the Western countries, Iran – as well as Saudi Arabia, the principle power backing the Sunni side – will also need to sit down at the negotiating table in Geneva to reach a solution to the Syria conflict. Heretofore unimaginable alliances are starting to take shape. Even the Syrian opposition – out of concern for losing their current sponsors – has for the first time declared its willingness to participate in working out a peaceful solution in Geneva.

When it comes to the powers shaping the Middle East, one does not immediately think of Russia. What does Syria mean to Moscow in the larger strategic context?

The former Soviet Union had substantial influence in the Middle East. Within the framework of the Cold War, it pursued a very active foreign policy that included intensive economic and military cooperation. With the collapse of the USSR, Russia then turned most of its attention inward to address domestic affairs. This has begun to change in recent years. The national sense of self-confidence is on the rise again, which initially has been celebrated on the domestic front. At the beginning of this year it still appeared that Russia had no strategy for dealing with the Middle Eastern region. However, the civil war in Syria and the diplomatic discussion surrounding the conflict offered Russia the chance to sharpen its profile on the international stage and to gain new power options. Moscow seized the opportunity.

Russian foreign policy is aware of the fact that it needs to keep its eye on the convergence of a number of different areas of conflict in Syria: not only the confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites (including their regional characteristics) but also other ongoing internal conflicts, from Libya to Pakistan. These regional flashpoints are increasingly interconnected – as can be clearly seen in the highly mobile groups of mercenaries that travel from one country to the next.

The entire theater – from North Africa to the Middle East and on to the Caucasus and Central Asia – is of the greatest interest to Russia, moreover, because the country is home to a substantial Muslim population of its own: about 30 million people. Indeed, the Caucasus and the Tatarstan region are predominantly Muslim. Domestic tensions are part of everyday life here; many call for secession from Russia; and there are efforts to establish a caliphate.

The linchpin and the pivot of Russian interest, however, is Iran – the country situated to the south, abutting numerous points of conflict, and neighbor to Afghanistan. Russia sees in Iran a substantial regional power and stabilizing factor, particularly once Western troops have withdrawn from the Hindu Kush. Russia has a keen interest, together with Iran and the US, in bringing further stability to Afghanistan once the drawdown of the ISAF operation is complete. Here, too, as in Syria, the three countries have common interests. The extent to which Moscow is ready to cooperate is evident in its simultaneous rejection of Saudi Arabian offers worth billions for cooperation on raw materials and armament supplies.

What can German foreign policy learn from the way the Syria crisis is being addressed?

Here are five points that can be conveyed from how other regional conflicts can be addressed:

We must more effectively bundle together our experiences in the use of hard and soft power. This means opening up the discourse on security policy to new ideas and intensifying forms of cooperation among ministries, NGOs, and think tanks. More than before, all of these actors should agree about possible conflict situations and give strategic recommendations.

In particular, the capacities available to us in transnational – but also in interregional – strategic analyses should be networked more effectively with operative policies.

Both quiet diplomacy and open debate are needed in addressing the complex upheavals of the Middle East. Only through a broad foreign policy discussion can the appropriate terms be found, for example. “Marketing” solutions such as labeling the events in the Middle East an “Arab spring” or naming the revolutions in Eastern Europe after flowers impede our view of the real dynamics and hazards.

EU foreign policy and the policies of EU member states need to cross-pollinate each other more vigorously than they have in the past. The experience of the war in the Balkans shows the great degree to which this can help broaden opportunities for negotiation. The cooperation of NATO, the EU, and individual member states was the precondition for the region’s relative peace and stability today.

Finally, the conflicts in the Middle East can perhaps teach us how to overcome the still prevalent culture here in Germany (even within circles of experts) of seeing the world in terms of traditional “blocks.” In today’s fundamentally changed international circumstances, it has for some time now made absolutely no sense to judge conflicts according to the old dichotomy of  “East versus West.” We must instead place much more emphasis on thinking in terms of realistic possibilities. Instead of following that all-too-simple “either/or” logic, we must open up to a logic that encompasses “this as well as that.”

Dr. Ewald Böhlke directs the DGAP’s Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Central Asia.

The DGAP’s scholarly studies and publications are intended to contribute to the assessment of and discussion around international developments. The opinions expressed in its publications are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institution.

Bibliographic data

Böhlke, Ewald. “Russia and the Case of Syria.” September 2013.

Five Questions, September 30, 2013