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Monday, December 17, 2012

Russia Admits It May Lose Syria

The Asia Times reports that the Russian special envoy for Syria, Mikhail Bogdanov, had acknowledged that Syria will likely fall to the rebels, and this has forced Russia to reevaluate its stance vis-a-vis Syria and the West. However, the loss of Syria, not matter what emerges from any agreements between Russia and the West, will deal a strategic blow to Russia's influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. From the article:

What does Russia do now? Moscow is pretty much isolated on the Syrian question and has virtually painted itself into a corner. The point is, over a hundred countries voiced their recognition of the newly formed Syrian opposition alliance at the meeting of the "Friends of Syria" in Morocco on Wednesday. 
The only way out for Moscow now will be to seek to strike a deal with the United States, and Russian diplomats are certainly adept at this. To Russia's comfort, the US also happens to be grappling with a complex situation. 
... However, Moscow holds one trump card, namely, the specter of the stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria that haunts international security if that country were to unravel. It stands to reason that Russian intelligence would have a fair idea as regards the location of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles. This intelligence becomes a "tradable" commodity in the rapidly evolving situation. 
Bogdanov may have done some shrewd kite-flying on Thursday when he openly began speculating publicly on this explosive issue, which is on everyone's mind. "Everyone is afraid of that, including our American partners," he said, adding that militants were already gaining control of Syrian military arsenals on the ground, including anti-aircraft missiles. 
That could also happen to chemical weapon stockpiles, Bogdanov said. He added, "This has already happened in Aleppo with the seizure of a plant manufacturing chemical components that can be used for terrorist purposes." 
Russia can hope to play on the Manichean fears in Washington. ... 
Therefore, what emerges, on balance, is that there could still be significant convergence between the US and Russia, emanating out of the two countries' "common concerns" as to what happens in the morrow of a regime change in Syria, and this convergence may well gain critical mass on a political track in the coming days or weeks. 
From the US viewpoint, the best outcome in Syria would have been a military takeover, which would leave the state structures intact - as in Egypt - and open the door to expansion of American influence in Damascus to steer the country toward an agreeable democratic outcome. Russia wields big influence over the Syrian military. 
Herein lies the basis of some optimism for Russian diplomacy. The Obama administration has just invited the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, to visit Washington for consultations. Moscow also made an overture this week to Qatar, the master-blaster in Syria, with the announcement that its energy company Gazprom will open an office in Doha. 
What remains to be seen is whether at the end of it all, Russia manages to retain its naval base in Tartus, which is its only presence outside the Black Sea. But the current state of US-Russia relations would preclude that from happening. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alleged only last week that a process of "re-Sovietization" is under way in Eurasia and the US is gearing up to thwart it. She was referring to Russia's projects of the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union. 
President Vladimir Putin felt provoked to react sharply that Clinton was speaking "nonsense". Washington has just imposed humiliating restrictions on visits by Russian officials implicated in human rights violations. 
All in all, therefore, it is highly probable that Washington will terminate the Russian naval presence in Tartus in the post-Assad phase, and may think of evicting Russia altogether from the Eastern Mediterranean. The US is already blocking Russia's bid to join hands with Israel in developing the massive Leviathan gas fields. 
In any case, Turkey also wants Russia out of the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, regime change in Syria becomes a serious strategic setback for Russia. No doubt, Moscow's ability to influence the historic transformation of the Middle East has been seriously impaired. 

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