With the "Friends of Syria" (FOS) grouping sponsored by the Western powers and their Arab allies scheduled to hold its first meeting in Tunis on Friday, Russian diplomacy has shifted gear into a proactive mode. The Kremlin was a beehive of diplomatic activity on Wednesday.
The venue of the birthplace of the "Arab Spring" for the FOS to gather might, prima facie, give an impression that the name of the game is high-flown rhetoric and nothing more.
But that is not how Moscow views the developing paradigm. It estimates that Tunis with its Mediterranean climate and languid look has been carefully chosen as a deceptive location for the West to launch a concerted assault on the citadel of President Bashar al-Assad and to legitimize it in the world opinion. Moscow senses that the final assault on Syria by the United States may not far off, although the US propaganda makes it out to be that the Barack Obama administration is on the horns of a dilemma, torn apart by an existential angst.
Moscow has point-blank turned down the "invitation" to be part of the FOS. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Tuesday:
“Officially we were not informed who will take part in the [FOS] conference or what the agenda will be. Most importantly, it is unclear what the actual goal of this initiative is ... Serious questions arise about the final document of the meeting. According to some information, a small group of countries, without knowledge of others, will be asked to simply stamp a document that is already in the process of being written ... it seems that we are talking about slapping together some kind of international coalition as was the case in organizing the Libya Contact Group in order to support one side against the other in an internal conflict. Russia is for all members of the world community to act as friends of all Syrian people and not only part of it”.
That statement may leave the impression that Moscow retains the option to review its association with FOS at some future stage. But its most important salient is the analogy drawn with the West’s Libyan intervention and the uncanny resemblance between the Libya Contact Group and the FOS in the making.
Against the backdrop of the Libyan analogy, the Kremlin swiftly moved into the diplomatic arena on Wednesday. President Dmitry Medvedev phoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Saudi monarch King Abdullah and the Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
The conversation with Abdullah apparently didn’t go far as the terse Kremlin announcement suggests. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency’s account claims that Abdullah rebuffed Medvedev virtually by insisting that any dialogue about the Syrian situation is "futile". He said Moscow should have "coordinated with Arabs ... before using its veto [in the UN Security Council]." Abdullah was quoted as saying, "But now, dialogue about what is happening [in Syria] is futile."
Abdullah made it clear that Riyadh has a closed mind on Syria and nothing short of a regime change in Damascus will satisfy the House of Saud.
Medvedev, however, held productive discussions with Maliki and Ahmadinejad. Interestingly, Moscow has sized up Baghdad as a meaningful interlocutor in the Syrian crisis in so short a time after the pullout of the United States’ troops from that country.
The Russian initiative to Baghdad is tantamount to an acknowledgement both of Iraq having got back its sovereignty after eight years of foreign occupation and its relevance and its capacity to play a role in the Syrian crisis, as well as a reminder to those who forgot that Iraq along with Syria were two staunch allies of the former Soviet Union in the Middle East.
The Kremlin account of the conversation between Medvedev and Maliki said:
The main subject of discussion was the situation in the Middle East, in particular in Syria, with the emphasis on not allowing outside intervention in Syria’s affairs and the need to end the bloodshed as soon as possible and launch a comprehensive dialogue in the country itself between all sides in the conflict. Both leaders stressed that political and diplomatic efforts to stabilize the situation in Syria are the only option and noted the counterproductive impact of economic sanctions against Syria, which only aggravate the Syrian people’s social and economic problems. [Emphasis added.]
Medvedev and al-Maliki "stressed the importance of continued coordination through bilateral and multilateral contacts in order to guarantee regional peace and security". Interestingly, the two leaders have agreed to expand and deepen the bilateral ties, which, incidentally, had a big security content in the Soviet era.
The stunning development, however, was Medvedev’s phone call to Ahmadinejad on Wednesday. Interestingly, it was made on the day after International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors concluded in Tehran what appears to have been an inconclusive mission.
Moscow has been chary of openly displaying a strategic understanding with Tehran on major regional problems lest it got unwittingly entangled in the US-Iran standoff. This political reserve conditioned Moscow’s lukewarm attitude to Iran’s persistent requests for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Thus, whichever way one looks at it, Moscow crossed the Rubicon on Wednesday to touch base with Ahmadinejad on the Syrian crisis, which Russian commentators increasingly flag as the most critical international issue today, which is reaching "boiling point".
The Russian media account of the Medvedev-Ahmadinejad conversation claimed the two leaders "spoke out" against foreign interference in Syria, while the Kremlin statement said they "urged the resolution of the current crisis by Syrian people using only peaceful means and without any foreign interference. The sides agreed that the main goal today ... is to prevent a civil war in the country, which may destabilize the situation in the whole region."
The Iranian account was more forthcoming.
"Given their common views and positions, Iran and Russia must make more effort to help establish peace in the region and prevent foreign intervention," Ahmadinejad said.
“Medvedev, for his part, said certain trans-regional powers seek Syria’s disintegration, which is a threat to Middle East security. The Russian president added that Iran and Russia can cooperate to peacefully resolve the crisis in Syria”.
Significantly, Moscow wrapped up its diplomatic initiatives on Wednesday with the Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov also making a demarche with the US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul at a meeting in the foreign ministry in Moscow over the Iran situation.
Rybakov voiced Moscow’s "strong objection" to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US against Iran and pointed out that such political pressure only impeded a "negotiated solution to the West’s standoff with Iran" and complicated Iran’s talks with the P5+1 - "Iran Six" - the US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany.
The demarche comes at a point when Russian commentators - like their Chinese counterparts - are increasingly placing the Syrian crisis and the situation around Iran as two vectors of the same matrix. It will bear watch how the Russian-Iranian strategic understanding over Syria develops.
“A Russian commentary on Wednesday analyzed that the co-relation of forces in the heart of the Middle Eastern region is changing dramatically:
Syria is developing a special relationship with Iraq, which sympathizes with Syria’s efforts to stabilize the domestic situation. It is quite probable that with the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Iran, Iraq and Syria will at some point naturally form a loose, tripartite alliance in the Middle East. Given that the majority of the Iraqis are Shiite and Iran’s growing influence in Iraq in the last few years, such a scenario is by no means improbable.”
The Kremlin diplomatic initiatives on Wednesday seems to have factored in the emergent regional scenario.
M. K. Bhadrakumar
Asia Times Online, February 24, 2012.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.