Conflict & Justice

Russia: The new peacemaker in Syria?


Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) and and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Monday.


Yuri Kadobnov

Moscow found itself on Tuesday playing the role of international peacemaker after Damascus agreed to its surprise proposal to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons to international control, suggesting the Russian plan may help thwart a potential US strike.

But the Kremlin indicated it wouldn’t back a strong resolution to control Syria's chemical weapons stocks that France is preparing to table at the UN Security Council later today. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the vote would indicate whether Russia’s proposal is a “ruse” to delay action over Syria.

The Kremlin said it would draft a non-binding UN declaration instead.

In Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said during a visit that his country had agreed to the proposal in a bid to block “US aggression,” the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia is preparing a concrete plan of action to implement its proposal.

“We hope to provide this plan in the near future, and we will be ready to modify it and work it out with the participation of the UN General Secretary, members of the UN Security Council, and the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” he told reporters, according to the RIA Novosti state news agency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin later told the state television channel Russia Today that handing over Syrian chemical weapons would only work if the United States renounces the use of force.

The proposal, announced on Monday, places Russia in the diplomatic front seat of an international logjam over a potential US attack.

It sent observers scrambling to evaluate the motives of the various sides involved as well as the potential for success.

President Barack Obama has threatened a military strike against Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

But the move has proven unpopular both at home and abroad. Obama’s surprise decision to put intervention up for congressional approval has prompted some supporters to say he’s backed himself into a corner.

Some believe Russia’s latest proposal may help him avoid a possible defeat in Congress.

Russia, meanwhile, has been the most vocal opponent of intervention in the conflict. Senior officials have consistently warned their American counterparts about the potential fallout of a missile strike on Syria, pointing to the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya that followed the 2011 NATO strike.

Moscow has also aggressively sought to position itself as an international arbiter between Western countries and the Syrian regime.

But some experts suggest Russia’s latest proposal is an effort to shore up its own interests.

Pavel Baev, a Russian foreign policy expert at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, says Moscow saw a quick opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

“First, to make sure that Russia upholds international norms [against the use of chemical weapons] and second, that by doing this, Russia is able to prevent a strike and to block the trend of intervention,” he said.

But he adds that the logistics of ensuring chemical weapons are safely transferred to international control are daunting.

Others agree.

Alexander Golts, a military and political expert in Moscow, points to various intelligence estimates that place the number of chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria at around several dozen. He argues that sending international forces to secure the arms would only narrowly outweigh a US strike.

“It means that we would need something like 30,000 to 40,000 troops deployed all over the country, which in fact means international occupation,” he says.

Regardless of its merits, the proposal has shifted Russia from its role as a stalwart critic of Western policy to a more active diplomatic player.

Obama welcomed Moscow’s proposal on Monday with cautious optimism, saying it was a “potentially positive development” but also expressing doubt as to whether the Syrian regime will stick to its commitment.

Moscow’s new role stands in stark contrast to the marginalization it faced during international summits such as the G8 in June and the G20 last week, where it fielded criticism over its perceived support for the Assad regime.

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If all goes well, Baev says, the proposal may hand Moscow a diplomatic victory, including at home, where the Kremlin has long played up its anti-intervention stance.

“If it’s seen as a success, as a situation where Russia is suddenly able to not only hold its defensive position but to make a difference, it might play into [President Vladimir] Putin’s favor,” he said.

With Russia threatening to block a new UN resolution, whether there will be international agreement over Moscow’s proposal remains to be seen.

Either way, the larger question about securing peace in Syria will probably continue to split Russia and the West for a long time to come.