The Syrian Wedge Between the U.S. and Russia

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We should hold Moscow accountable for its actions, which are harming American interests.

Russia Feb6 p.jpg

Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet in Munich / AP

In another blow to President Obama's "reset policy" with Russia, Moscow and Beijing imposed a double veto at the U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian government for killing civilians. In an unprecedented rhetorical escalation, U.S. ambassador Susan Rice announced that the United States was "disgusted" by the veto: "The international community must protect the Syrian people from this abhorrent brutality, but a couple members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant."

The gathering diplomatic clouds have produced a thunderbolt. A contretemps this week between the foreign ministers of the United States and Russia reflects the growing tensions between the two countries, not to mention the two officials. According to State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried repeatedly on Tuesday to reach her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. He avoided her calls for twenty-four hours. Meanwhile Lavrov, who was in Australia, said State gave him an inconvenient time frame for the conversation, which didn't work as he had scheduled meetings with high officials in the Australian government. When asked why the Americans were complaining, he replied, "Probably this is due to her manners."

This remarkable give-and-take between the two foreign ministries certainly confirms that U.S.-Russian relations are not in good shape--and, further, that there is no love lost between those two high governmental officials. However, the immediate pretext for the latest deterioration of relations between the two countries is Syria.

The Russian Interest

Russia has a lot at stake in Syria, and it does not want another Libyan scenario in which an old ally takes a bullet. Nor does it want radical Islamists to take over the Arab state that hosts the last Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. Hence, Lavrov says, the Kremlin is not supportive of regime change in Damascus. But it may have no choice.

Moscow considers the uprising in Syria to be, to some extent, the handiwork of the United States and its European allies. This perception is fundamentally wrong: Assad's is an oppressive, minority-Alawi regime. It came to power via a 1970 coup. In 1982, the current dictator's father, then president Hafez al-Assad, brought artillery and killed over twenty thousand Islamist rebels in the town of Hama. The son is less efficient and likely to lose power.

Peaceful protests against Assad's dictatorship started last spring. Since then, the regime's response to these protests has claimed more than five thousand lives and triggered a campaign of violence from the majority Sunnis that includes a growing Islamist element and takes in Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi and even al-Qaeda-affiliated factions.

Despite President Obama's "reset" policy, Russia continues to support Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime. But in a rare admission of reality, a senior Middle East hand acknowledged that Russia must step back. Mikhail Margelov, chair of the upper house's foreign-affairs committee, admitted that Russia has "exhausted its arsenal" of support available to Assad.

The USSR had close relations with Syria since the days of United Arab Republic. The UAR included Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Driven by Arab nationalists, it was socialist, anti-Israel and anti-Western alliance--everything the Soviets could desire.

The relationship with Syria has thrived under Putin--but at a cost to Russia. Moscow has forgiven almost three-quarters of Damascus's massive debt in order to lure lucrative weapons orders. Not long after the United States imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004 for supporting Islamist terrorism and for allowing al-Qaeda fighters to cross into Iraq, Russia agreed in principle to sell Damascus a massive weapons package, which included war planes, short-range air-defense systems and anti-tank weapons.

President Medvedev signed a formal military agreement in May 2010 expanding arms sales. In the last decade, Russia has sold well over a $1 billion in arms to Syria, including anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles and MiG 29/31 fighter aircraft.

Russia also plans to construct a nuclear-power plant in Syria. This is despite Israel's destruction of a suspected covert nuclear reactor in the middle of the Syrian desert in September 2007.

Now, the Assad regime appears to be in the end game--and it is losing. But despite the regime's growing isolation, Russia continues to supply it with weapons and nuclear technology. In 2010, Moscow Russia decided to deliver SS-N-26 Yakhont antiship cruise missiles to Damascus.

These sales are destabilizing and dangerous. In 2006, Hezbollah used Russian anti-tank rockets provided by Syria against Israeli forces. Russia has continued to deliver weapons to Syria, despite pressure from the U.S. and Israeli governments. Iran also funnels arms and trainers to Hamas and Hezbollah via Syria.

Blinded by the Reset

Syria is just another shipwreck resulting from Obama's reset policy hitting the reefs. The conflicting Russian and U.S. interests in the Middle East are coming to the fore. A longtime sponsor of terror and Iran's close ally, Syria has aided and abetted attacks on American troops and U.S. allies in Lebanon and Iraq. From the Kremlin's perspective, the practically inevitable collapse of the Assad regime would constitute a net loss.

Russia still clings to the rogue actor, once again highlighting the fact that the Kremlin's first priorities are not cooperation with the United States or stability in the region but opposing Washington, increasing arms exports and expanding its own influence.

This year, a small Russian flotilla led by the Moscow's only aircraft-carrying cruiser--the Admiral Kuznetsov--paid a visit to Syria. This public support of the embattled Assad regime clearly demonstrated Russia's defiance of U.S. interests and its disregard for the Obama administration's reset policy. But it also signaled the limits of Russian power.

Yet there is a lesson learned. Russia's current protection of Syria is not unlike what it provides to Iran. The Kremlin is hoping against hope for the preservation of Assad. The emergence of a new Sunni, pro-Russian regime in Damascus appears unlikely. But Moscow analysts tell me that if Assad goes down, the Kremlin will earn a reputation of supporting allies--something the United States lacks after letting the Mubarak regime go down quickly. The real question is whether Russia will keep the Soviet-era naval base in Tartus on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

While the disagreement on Libya led to Russia's abstention in the Security Council and was soon forgotten, the spat over Syria will poison Moscow's relationship with Washington, its European allies and Sunni Arab states.

The Obama administration, which is consistently behind the curve in Syria, should stop boasting about the "successes" of the Russia reset policy and hold Moscow accountable for actions that threaten U.S. interests: destabilizing arms transfers, nuclear-technology sales and support for massive human-rights violators such as Syria and Iran.

This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy policy in the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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