Russia: Alone but undeterred?

Iran’s exclusion from Geneva II gives newly-minted power broker Russia centre stage.

Moscow has been insisting for months that Tehran must be party to the talks in Geneva [Reuters]

Geneva II peace talks are set to be arduous and probably not very successful in achieving a breakthrough in the 34-month-old Syrian conflict. But the fresh round of talks will offer a diplomatic scene for Russia where it will finally get to be a global powerbroker, equal to the US.

Montreaux-Geneva II  peace talks have started with Russia getting frustrated over Iran’s exclusion from the list of attending countries. Moscow has been insisting for months that Tehran, a key supporter of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, must be party to the talks to ensure a more successful outcome. On January 19, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon extended an invitation to Iran, only to be rescinded following the threat by the Syrian opposition delegation to boycott the talks, in case Iran is included.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quick to condemn Ki-moon’s decision. He was quoted by the Russian state-run NIA Novosti news agency as saying “40 countries have been invited to the Geneva II talks … And if Iran is excluded from the list then the conference will resemble something profane“.

He later on added that excluding Iran was “a mistake but no catastrophe“.

Indeed, Iran’s exclusion is an unpleasant but not a significant event for Russia in Geneva II, where it will have centre stage. Moreover, it was quickly overshadowed by the private discussion between the US and Russian presidents prior to the talks, where reportedly amongst other issues, the two leaders tried to coordinate their peace efforts ahead of Geneva II. For Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, this is already a diplomatic achievement, considering that at the beginning of the Syrian crisis Moscow was a sidelined and lone voice, desperately trying to be heard by the US and EU.

Things have evolved since then, culminating with Russia using its influence over Assad to surrender its chemical weapons. This diplomatic move catapulted Russia to the top league of global power brokers in the Syrian crisis. Moscow’s opinion and actions matter now. (The chemical weapons deal also made Putin an unlikely Obama ally, by giving him a get out clause from yet another military campaign in the Middle East, which the US leader was clearly hesitant to undertake.)

Moscow remains intransigent

Enjoying its new diplomatic clout, Russia is unlikely to be receptive to Western calls of Assad’s imminent departure.  Moscow has been and continues to insist on its principles of the peace roadmap which include; no international or unilateral military intervention against Assad’s government; inclusion of only moderate opposition forces in the transitional government; provision of full security to members of the current government and its supporters and no pre-conditions to a potential deal, such as Assad’s immediate departure.

Moscow has been and continues to insist on its principles of the peace roadmap, including no international or unilateral military intervention against Assad’s government.


Moreover, the bloody infighting amongst the armed Syrian opposition on the ground, the grave concerns of rising influence of uncontrollable religious militancy and the fragmented Syrian National Council (SNC), the main representative body of anti-Assad forces, are factors that boost Russia’s confidence in its peace roadmap. Moscow has also been insisting that any foreign military aid should stop first in order to de-escalate the situation and halt military activities. This may have been a realistic suggestion two years ago, but the face of the conflict has changed significantly making the Russian plan of returning to status quo not pragmatic.

Still, Russian tactics of sticking to its narrow – but clear – strategy have been successful, as Putin managed to avert a military strike and delivered the chemical weapons destruction deal. Russia has also emerged as a strong player due to the West’s lack of a clear strategy. In particular, the US remains paralysed with indecision when it comes to this conflict. Although admittedly, Syria has always been a difficult case being a patchwork of religious and ethnic groups. Years of near inaction by the international community have made everything far worse. But for Putin, US oscillations have only helped to shape his image as a firm and decisive world leader. Putin has never hid his skepticism of the Arab Spring revolution in Syria.

Domestically Putin’s ratings are up again, albeit this is not necessarily due to his recent foreign policy achievements (RU). But, averting military intervention in Syria, or more recently bringing Ukraine and Armenia into the Russian sphere of influence away from EU, have helped. Putin comes across as a decisive leader, able to defend Russia’s economic and political interests. Furthermore, in the view of recent Volgograd twin bombings and what appears to be a sharp increase in the likelihood of more attacks by North Caucasian Islamist groups in mainland Russia, domestic public opinion is more inclined to share Putin’s view on the Syrian crisis and his support for Assad, seen as someone who is also fighting against a common enemy.

Regaining economic and political clout

Economic and commercial reasons were often cited as key reasons behind Russia support for Syrian regime. Although a closer look at the Russian-Syrian cooperation points that Moscow is not in it for large and immediate commercial gains. Indeed, Russia has become Syria’s key arms supplier in recent months, reportedly gaining multibillion contracts. Its energy companies have been involved in Arab Gas Pipeline construction and forming joint ventures with Syrian national oil company to conduct hydrocarbon exploration projects in the country. However, Russia also wrote off $9.8 billion of Syria’s $13.4 billion Soviet-era debt, while its investments both commercial and military, including in Tartus naval base unfit for deep water vessels, have yet to bring returns.

Still, Syria is an important foothold for Russia into the Middle East, especially long-term. This is expected to underpin the Russian position on the Syrian peace deal as well at Geneva II and in the coming months.

The long-term goals were summarised by Putin in his early 2012 series of pre-election newspaper articles. He bluntly accused the West of pursuing commercial interests in backing the revolutions in the Middle Eastern countries He pointed out that, in the meantime, the Russian companies have been losing out.

Putin’s interpretation of events supports his drive to counter unwanted changes seen as detrimental to Russian interests in the region. This interpretation was one, but not the only factor shaping Russia’s foreign policy towards the Middle East and Syria in particular. Close cooperation with Iran and Iraq have also been part of this diplomatic drive. 

While restoring Soviet era economic and geopolitical clout in the Middle East is an overarching goal for Russia, in Geneva II, their focus, nonetheless, will be on peaceful transition and emphasis on fight against religious militancy.

While restoring Soviet-era economic and geopolitical clout in the Middle East is an overarching goal for Russia, in Geneva II their focus will be on peaceful transition and emphasis on fight against Islamist militancy.

The latter is another factor influencing Russian foreign policy in the region. Also, it is an issue that has become even more pressing for Putin ahead of the Winter Olympics. This is a serious challenge for him due to the destructive and uncontrollable nature of this threat in Russia.

 In a recently posted video message Russia’s North Caucasian militants admitted the responsibility for killing 34 people in two attacks in the past month. Worse, there is a threat of a new wave of attacks.

The reports of North Caucasian militants fighting in Syria against the government forces once again links the conflict with Russian concerns of possible threats on its own soil. Hence, at Geneva II, Russia is expected to emphasis the need to combat particularly al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria. This issue would also provide a common denominator for Russia-US cooperation when seeking a solution for the Syrian crisis.

However, there are just far too many obstacles, precluding successful outcome at Geneva II talks. The biggest challenge remains the fractured nature of the Syrian opposition, which renders calls for Assad’s immediate stepping down more unrealistic. The militant groups are not involved in the process, hence the implementation of any potential deal will be questionable. Many fighting groups remain outside of the SNC’s control, risking the conflict turning into a long-drawn military affair. In addition, the Russian suggestion of effectively returning Syria to pre-crisis status quo by taking away all the military support in order to launch a serious peace effort is increasingly detached from reality. At the same time, the US insistence on Assad’s immediate exit with no enforceable transition plan on the table is equally questionable.

For now, neither Russia nor the US appear to have a solution for Syria. Hence Geneva II is likely to be yet another forum for reiterating diverging views and power posturing by key brokers, while the chaos in Syria continues.

Lilit Gevorgyan is a Russia/CIS country analyst with IHS Global Insight and Jane’s Information Group.