Syria and The Russian Recovery: Putin on Center Stage


2013-09-12 by Robbin Laird

In the days when there was a Soviet Union, no one would look at a Middle East crisis without looking at what the Soviets were prepared to do or how they might try to play out their interests. 

As the Soviet Union faced the end game, their objectives shifted and they modified away from ideological considerations to hard power politics.

A good case in point was the question of Soviet weapons into the Middle East.  The dominant view in the 1980s was that the Soviets provided arms into the Middle East to support their client states primarily for political reasons.

What had been missed was the shift to getting hard currency for their weapons, and energy trades to augment the role of the Soviet Union as an energy power.  I worked with Wharton Econometrics and we produced a report which looked at hard currency earnings from Soviet arms trade in the Middle East and provided assessments of the trend lines.The Soviets in the 1980s were anticipating the Russians of the 21st century. 

In an amazing statement by a White House spokesman last year it was asserted that the Russians did not understand their interests in Syria.

But the reality is that the Russians know their interests very well and have played the Syrian crisis to position themselves back to center stage in the Middle East.

To understand how significant this shift is, we can go back to 2008 and remember the Georgian war.

Here the Russians were putting a marker down that NATO expansion was over and that rollback was in play.  A war in Europe itself was being generated to end a process, which the Russians tried to stop diplomatically, but failed to do so. They used military means to achieve a diplomatic objective; not the other way around.

From pariahs in 2008 to key players in shaping the Middle East and more broadly Mediterranean security is a significant transformation of the Russian fate. 

Knowing Judo and Karate Maybe Better Training for Diplomacy Than Playing Golf.

Given that diplomacy is a game of chutes and ladders, the Russians are on the ladder.

And this has nothing to do with the US “reset” of relations with Russia; this is about a very skilled diplomatic player positioning his state to expand its interests.

Putin is pursuing his global energy policy as a centerpiece of grand strategy.  The expanded role in the Arctic and the positioning to center stage in the Middle East are crucial to the pursuit of Russian interests.

The twin crises involved with the Euro and with Syria have provided fertile ground for the Russians. 

The Euro crisis provides openings in Southern Europe with a weakening of the Euro zone.

The Russians are seeking to position themselves in Greece and Cyprus to expand their influence on the Western side of the Med.

The Syrian crisis has provided an opportunity to enter the “soft underbelly” of the Euro zone.  The Russians have offered to assist in the restructuring of the debt in Cyprus concurrent with an agreement for Cyprus to not allow its territory to be used to launch strikes against Syria. 

Yesterday afternoon, Russia agreed to restructure Cyprus’ EUR 2.5 billion loan terms to a much more affordable 2.5% semi-annual coupon through 2016 and a principal re-payment over the following four years. While probably still out of reach for the desperate economy, it was a positive step. Of course, this ‘offer’ by Russia has its quid pro quo. This morning, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides has stated that Cyprus territory will not be used to launch military strikes against Syria, as “Cyprus wants to live up to its responsibility as a shelter if needed for nationals of friendly countries who evacuate from Middle East”. It would appear Obama’s influence is fading everywhere… 

Cyprus is located ~183 nautical miles west of Syria and is the EU member nearest to Syria. 

The Russian government has endorsed restructuring of the terms of the Russian loan to Cyprus, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak told reporters Friday.

“The restructuring was endorsed at the last meeting of the Cabinet,” he said

Cyprus is to repay a EUR 2.5bn loan to Russia in eight semiannual installments starting in 2016, Deputy Finance Minister Sergey Storchak told reporters today, citing a revision of repayment terms approved at the latest cabinet meeting. The interest rate was lowered to 2.5% from 4.5%. 

Russia extended the loan in 2011 for 4.5 years. Cyprus UK Bases (via Bloomberg)

The U.K. has 2 sovereign bases on Cyprus; and despite its vote against a strike, the U.K. Ministry of Defence said today 6 RAF Typhoon interceptor fast jets deploying to British base at Akrotiri in Cyprus as precautionary measure “to protect British bases on island” Cyprus Refugee Camp (via Bloomberg). 

Cyprus Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides says his country is prepared for any influx of foreign nationals in the event of military action against Syria, in comments to reporters in Nicosia today. Cyprus can accept up to 10,000 people daily on basis they remain for 48 hours before repatriation (Cyprus received more than 40,000 evacuees from Lebanon after 2 weeks fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters in 2006). Cyprus Refuses To Allow Strikes From Its Territory against Syria (via Bloomberg). 

Cyprus assured its territory won’t be used to launch military strikes against Syria, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said, according to a transcript of his comments posted on govt’s press-office website 

Kasoulides commented that “Cyprus wants to live up to its responsibility as a shelter if needed for nationals of friendly countries who evacuate from Middle East”

The official statement by the government of Cyprus makes it clear that there is a territorial use opt it in place:

The Government of Cyprus has repeatedly expressed its grave concern about the use of chemical weapons against the friendly people of Syria, including innocent civilians and even against women and children. Our reaction becomes even stronger when this happens in such proximity to our country. The loss of 1429 lives, including 426 children in the last attack in Damascus, constitutes a crime against humanity. It is unreservedly condemned. Such a heinous act, cannot be without consequences. 

Undoubtedly, use of chemical weapons has occurred. The designation of the responsible side does not fall under the mandate of the UN fact-finding mission. Nonetheless, the Syrian regime is accountable for the fact that it is producing, stockpiling, and it is in a position to mixture chemical weapons, in violation of customary international and humanitarian law, including the Chemical Weapons Convention. If the Syrian regime had proceeded to destroy such weapons, in the presence of observers of the relevant international organizations, it would not have to prove that is not responsible of their recent massive use. 

Whatever happens, the Geneva II Process must be safeguarded, in order to seek a political solution to the wider problem. 

Cyprus, as a country of stability, peace and security in the region, stands ready to live up to its responsibility as a shelter, in case needed, in order to evacuate nationals of friendly countries from the Middle East. Cyprus would like to safeguard this capacity; to that end, we have received assurances that the territory of Cyprus will not be used for military strikes.

The Syrian crisis has provided Putin with the opportunity to shape a diplomatic initiative on chemical weapons, which is a win-win for Russia. 

The Russians have been key players in various ways in shaping the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal and are clearly the key patron of Assad.  In spite of this, the Russians are moving to place themselves as a honest broker in shaping a diplomatic outcome.

The US has positioned itself as the player willing to use force; the Russians are the “moderate” force for diplomacy.

But to get to an agreement on chemical weapons – do not forget that Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention – the West will have to recognize the central role of Assad, provide protection for any weapons inspectors going into Syria, enforce a cease fire on the “rebels” and provide undoubtedly some sort of financial support to the regime.

In other words, the game has already moved from displacing Assad (the feared regime change or Iraq card) to reinforcing him. 

And this is being done in part because of concern as well for the quality of Russian arms, which are in or could be deployed to Syria.  This arms shell game is crucial for the Russians to build a global perception that they are a match for American air power.  This is a key element of a global arms marketing strategy, and to keeping folks like the Indians buying Russian equipment.

Even better from the Russian point of view, the maneuvers over Syria have the distinct possibility of making any American strike against Iran much more difficult.

The general intelligence crisis generated by the global impacts from the Snowden affair, coupled with the inspection process which will be used to demonstrate that US and Western intelligence on chemical weapons use was “over blown” and “inaccurate,” will provide a solid baseline for disparaging any US or Western intelligence analysis of the Iranian situation.

And the Libyan and Syrian events will only reinforce in the Iranian mind that the possession of nuclear weapons is a good thing to keep outside forces from interfering in the Islamic Republic’s affairs.

Another key aspect of the return of Russia is that Russia now becomes a force to be reckoned with on the part of Turkey, Iraq, the GCC and Israel.  The Russians can now position themselves as a force for shaping change (perhaps one can not believe in) in the Middle East.

If one were looking at the perspective of 2008 this would have seemed an impossible forecast.

But 2013 is not 2008.

As Paul Richter of the LA Times has put it in a perceptive piece:

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears especially delighted by the tentative acceptance of the plan. It allows him to show that Moscow remains a major player in the Middle East and a world power broker. 

“He’s been eager to show that he can fill the partial diplomatic vacuum the U.S. has left in the Middle East, and this lets him make that point,” said Andrew Weiss, a White House advisor on Russia during the Clinton administration and now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Perhaps the clearest loser from the latest developments are the pro-Western factions of the Syrian rebels, who have worked to bring the United States into a direct military role in the war. They have now received clear evidence of how resistant the American public is to involvement in their conflict, even if the White House appears to be promising to provide some Syrian rebel groups with more powerful weaponry and training.

Also likely to be disappointed are the Saudis, their Persian Gulf allies and the Turks, all of whom oppose Assad and have sought to draw the U.S. and its allies into a larger military role in Syria.,0,4969084.story