TSG IntelBrief: Syria Stuck in a Superpower Two-Step
May 29, 2014

Syria Stuck in a Superpower Two-Step

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Bottom Line Up Front:

 Syria is becoming a victim of US-Russia tensions, and without the agreement of the major powers, peace is not possible

 
• Differences between the US and Russia on Syria are not great, nor insurmountable, but are getting harder to resolve
 
• A solution to the civil war is unlikely until international tensions subside.
 
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Even before President Obama had begun his speech at West Point yesterday, the Russian Foreign Minister expressed his concern at the possibility of increased US military support for rebel forces in Syria. He reminded his audience at a press conference in Moscow of the particular danger of surface-to-air missiles supplied to rebel groups being used against civil aviation. During his speech, President Obama made only a general pledge to increase support for the Syrian opposition, and he appeared to have the political opposition more in mind than the armed opposition.

The fact is, at the most basic level, both Russia and the US agree on Syria. Neither country wants to see extremist groups become more powerful and both would like a stable Syrian government strong enough to take them on. Beyond that, the US would like to see a government that provides a far higher level of good governance and responsiveness to its people than Bashar al-Assad or his father Hafiz ever did, and Moscow would like a reliable trade partner and one that allows Russia to maintain its foothold of influence in the Middle East. These two objectives, however, are not totally incompatible.

Increasingly, however, the civil war is becoming a competition between Moscow and Washington as much as it is a fight between the various factions in Syria. The two major powers seem to be locked in an unlikely two-step. While the Friends of Syria collective condemns the forthcoming Syrian elections, the Russian government dispatches its fiery Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, to Damascus for a photo-op with al-Assad in a show of support. This does little to encourage anyone to think that peace is around the corner.

There will be no end to the civil war in Syria until Russia, the US, and other major powers agree on a solution. Arms supplies to the rebels have been more than matched by Russian arms supplies to the regime. Even if the rebels were to obtain surface-to-air missiles, it is unlikely that they would get them in such numbers that it would tip the balance decisively in their favor. Russia has in any case just promised to accelerate the delivery of 12 MIG 29s—originally designed for air-to-air combat, they have a lethal air-to-surface capability—ordered by Syria as long ago as 2007, possibly as further discouragement to the US to supply the rebels with missiles. Nonetheless, the introduction of additional high-performance weapons systems heightens tensions in the region.

Even if the rebels managed to expel the extremists and join forces politically—an unlikely scenario in both respects—the war would not end unless Russia and the US came to an agreement. It is no longer Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran that hold the key to ending the conflict. Instead, they seem to be moving further apart, and the longer the war goes on the harder it will be for them to find common ground. The atmosphere between them on all issues is now far more confrontational than collaborative, and it is further exacerbated by events in Ukraine.

Since a Presidential Statement last October calling on all parties to allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need, the UN Security Council has been unable to do anything about Syria. There have been just four Security Resolutions that have been vetoed since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, with no votes from any member of the Council against any of the other 186. Two of those resolutions, vetoed by both Russia and China, concerned Syria, and one was a proposal to introduce an arms embargo.

Clearly, neither the Russians nor the Chinese want to see more  Syrians die, and the reason for their negative votes has far more to do with the aftermath of the Security Council resolution on Libya and the principle of non-intervention—and respective national interests—than with support for al-Assad. Nonetheless, if the Security Council cannot agree on a course of action, it is unlikely that any other group will be able to take decisive action.

Indeed, it was the difficulty of getting Russia and the US to see eye-to-eye that led to the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria two weeks ago. He could see as clearly as anyone that all the communiqués in the world would achieve nothing if the major powers continued to quarrel and disagree. At the end of the last meeting of the “London 11” on May 15, US Secretary of State Kerry said that “every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up, every facet. That includes political effort. It includes aid to the opposition. It includes economic efforts, sanctions.” Unfortunately it also has to include a better international atmosphere.

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