How Russia is Using Syria to Boost Its Global Standing

But there's a limit to how much Moscow can do to stop Assad.
FSA Aleppo banner 324.png
Free Syrian Army fighters walk down a debris-filled street in Aleppo on March 19, 2013. (Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters)

MOSCOW - After marathon meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry here Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hinted that Moscow may finally pressure Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to leave office.

"We are not interested in the fate of certain individuals," Lavrov said at a late night news conference. "We are interested in the fate of the totality of the Syrian people."

Lavrov and Kerry announced that they would host an international conference where Syrian government officials and rebels will be given a chance to name an interim government. The odds of the two sides agreeing are low but Kerry deserves credit for securing a small diplomatic step forward here.

The problem is that Lavrov and his boss - President Vladimir Putin - may be unable to deliver on Assad. For nearly two years, Lavrov and Putin have served as the Syrian leaders' chief international ally. But Russian analysts say Washington is kidding itself it if believes Putin can orchestrate a quick and easy end to the conflict in Syria.

"All of this is wishful thinking," said Sergei Strokan, a columnist for the liberal Moscow dailyKommersant. "Moscow has quite limited influence on the Syrian regime."

Decades from now, President Barack Obama's decision to not arm Syria's rebels may be condemned or praised by historians. But a visit to Moscow this week showed that it has come at an immediate price. Washington's failure to act created a vacuum that Putin and Lavrov used to boost Russia's global standing.

"For the last two years, Lavrov has dramatically elevated his profile on the world stage," Susan Glasser recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. "He has done so by almost single-handedly defying Western attempts to force some united action to stop Syria's deadly civil war."

Lavrov and Putin have also used Syria to boost their standing at home. Kerry's visit coincided with the one-year anniversary of disputed elections in Russia that Putin used to gain his third term in office. Before meeting with Kerry, Putin fired a key lieutenant who was the architect of the system that has allowed the Russian leader to take control of major industries, seize most media outlets and intimidate or co-opt the country's elite.

With the price of oil low, Putin's oil-dependent economy is flagging. Barring a surge in oil prices, massive social welfare payments are unsustainable. Corruption is endemic, consuming an estimated $300 billion a year, 16 percent of Russia's gross domestic product. Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, currently names Russia the worst nation on earth in its Bribe Payer's index, which ranks firms on their likelihood to bribe.

Putin has tightly controlled who is investigated for bribery and used corruption charges to smear his enemies. The latest in a string of Orwellian examples is the trial of blogger Alexei Navalny, ananti-graft blogger facing dubious embezzlement charges.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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