Russia and China’s vetoes on the UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian government’s violent crackdown on opposition and aimed at imposing greater international sanctions on Damascus were largely viewed in the West, as well as in the Arab world, as a critical obstacle for stopping the on-going bloodshed on the Syrian streets. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s subsequent visit to Damascus (on February 7th) put Russia in a position of being the Bashar al-Assad regime’s main protector and therefore welcomed the lion’s share of international pressure and criticism. Since the criticism and pressure are growing concurrently with increasing number of civilian deaths and worsening humanitarian situation in Syria, the question arises, will Russia change its position on Syrian issue?
I think the timing of Moscow’s activation on Syrian issue prompts the answer to the question. By the time Russia’s Foreign Minister visited Damascus, there was already enough ground to assume that the political regime in Syria was steadily heading toward a Libyan scenario. Assad’s denial to step down and transfer power to his deputy (a suggestion included in the Arab League’s plan), his belated and perhaps idle efforts aimed at reforming the country’s political system, and his overt determination to stifle political opposition by military terror had made his regime’s political future extremely questionable even before Lavrov’s arrival to Damascus. It is hardly plausible that Kremlin’s decision-makers have underestimated these factors when backing Syrian regime vis-à-vis international (particularly Western) community. Then what’s the point of standing behind the regime and its leader who has crossed all possible red lines and is virtually condemned to political fiasco?
Moscow’s move was aimed at gaining an additional “platform” for bargaining with the West. Given the forthcoming presidential elections in Russian Federation such occasion may appear quite soon. The mass demonstrations against the candidacy of ruling party (United Russia) candidate and incumbent Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, that started in December 2011 in Moscow revealed dissatisfaction by Putin’s planned return within many segments of Russian society. Alarming numbers of demonstrators proves that despite the affluence of administrative, financial, media, and other resources that Russia’s ruling party may employ for securing Putin’s victory, the latter’s ascendance to power may be significantly thorny. Under these circumstances, Russia’s ruling class may exclude neither undesirable outcome of the elections nor post-election turbulence. If such problems arise, Russia’s political regime will become extremely susceptible to Western critique and even interference (whatever it implies), which in turn may damage Putin’s team standing significantly.
Here, Moscow may use its position on the Syrian issue as a kind of ruse for keeping the West, and particularly the United States, away from Russia’s internal political “rumblings”. In other words, Moscow apparently counts on yielding Syria to the West in return to the latter’s non-interference to Russia’s pre- and post-election political life. It is worth mentioning also that the urgency of Syrian issue increases its bargaining value day by day.
Hence, as election day in Russia comes closer, one may expect Moscow to change its position in regard to the Syrian issue literally at first convenient occasion to do so. According to the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in November 2011, Russia’s President Medvedev stated that if Bashal al-Assad is incapable of managing transformation in his country, he has to leave. Thus Russia’s leader made clear that Moscow is leaving the paths for Assad’s exit open, and may change its position if needed.
As for China’s position on the same issue, it is unlikely that Beijing will stand alone with the Syrian government once Russia leaves it. By calling recently on the Syrian government and the country’s opposition to halt acts of violence immediately, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Mr. Zhai Jun, basically expressed Beijing’s obsession with the burden it assumed by vetoing the UN resolution.
Thus, as violence in Syria intensifies and international concerns with the situation in this country increases, one may expect revision of Russia’s, and then China’s, position on dealing with Syrian crisis, which will give way to greater international pressure on Syrian government and possibly intervention.