The need for objectivity and transparency in response to the Russian threat

Countries around the Western world have joined the UK in expelling Russian diplomats. Considering Russia’s actions since the 2014 Crimean annexation, this solidarity from the West is not surprising. Whilst the nerve agent attack has evidently provided the spark, there has been growing unease in the West concerning Russia’s behaviour. Russia’s foreign policy since 2014 has been aggressive, characterised by consistent interference in Western politics.

However, the West’s response has been weak-minded, cowardly and, as a consequence, has heightened tensions. This is not to suggest that the West should fight fire with fire and restart programs of brinkmanship, collusion and the dirty tactics that defined international relations in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, unsubstantiated allegations of partisanship partnered with a refusal to present transparent findings have prevented clear and untainted evidence of Russia’s actions from being published, allowing Russia to deny all allegations whilst continuing to be a sort of spectre looming over the west.

The current response to the attack in Salisbury is a perfect example. With little information other than the strong assumption that Russia was behind it, Russian diplomats across the world have been expelled. Investigations have not concluded and findings detailing the extent to which parties were involved have not been published. Reactionary rhetoric has been used over objective, procedural, unequivocal evidence. Russia can continue to deny their involvement. Russia remains a vague, unquantified threat.

There is a desperate need for transparency in the West to combat this growing threat. The major problem preventing Russia from being held accountable is that it is difficult for the public to truly know the extent of their involvement. Investigations have, understandably, needed to remain opaque in order to be successful. However,  investigations have been tainted by the politics of the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s rather innocuous claim that the investigation should be completed before any action was taken led to character assassinations from right across the British political spectrum. A similar situation occurred in the USA. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the US election has devolved into an apparent war between the President and the intelligence services, preventing any findings from being considered in an objective and untainted way. With constant accusations of misinformation and partisanship, made with apparent ulterior motives, the institutions created to defend against such foreign attacks are being eroded into impotency. Investigations need to be allowed to continue without political rhetoric twisting them at every step. We need to see unequivocal evidence of Russia’s culpability.

The issue is compounded by allegations that Russia is making use of social media and data analysis in the USA (as well as conceivably in regard to the Brexit vote). Misinformation and targeted propaganda are the major stories of the day, and again, Russia’s involvement is assumed and alleged but not certified or explained. At the moment the argument revolves around statements like, “Our data has been taken by third parties” and these third parties have “influenced elections”. Such vague statements allow Russia to continue to deny and deflect criticism. Our elections have been affected by this data collation, but we are unsure how or to what extent. We need transparency, both from Facebook, regarding how they protect and distribute our data, and from the companies and organisations that use our data. Only with this level of transparency can the threat from Russia be detailed, realised and prevented. As it stands, this vague allegation that “Russia is meddling” fixes nothing and simply breeds further tension and distrust.

Orthodox Russia – an Ideology of Exclusivity

The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.

The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.

The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.

Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.

This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.

The Immolation of the West?

There are persistent claims in the media that amount to a picture of a possible combined ‘Sunni’ intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is said that Saudi Arabia is considering an armed incursion. Turkey is frequently tipped to engage and then nothing happens. Lord Howell of Guildford asked a most interesting question in the House of Lords which concluded:

Could she [the Minister responsible] just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.

The Minister gave no clear reply. We may note a related question on British engagement in the region in the House of Commons which received the following answer from Penny Mordaunt Minister of State, Minister for the Armed Forces:

We have deployed a small number of military personnel serving as liaison officers in Saudi headquarters to provide insight into Saudi operations. They remain under UK command and control. These liaison officers are not involved in the targeting process – whether it be the selection, decision making or directing. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.”

Something is up and Parliament seems unclear precisely what. But British military personnel are already involved in one or more regional conflicts without a very clear mandate. Is mission creep already in danger of setting in? Meanwhile, it is becoming more and more clear that the US is disinclined to intervene directly despite fairly aggressive lobbying from the Syrian Opposition in Washington (which also has strong links to the High Tory element in Parliament and Government).

We can speculate and speculate but anything we say may well result in egg on our faces when the facts are known, Nevertheless, what seems to be happening is two-fold. First, an appreciation that the Russian intervention is not going to result in the fall of Assad at the hands of the rebels and, second, that the drive outwards from Damascus could, if unchecked, destroy the ‘moderate’ Opposition and send waves of refugees into Turkey and thence to Europe and south into Jordan. Jordan is the forgotten nation here and its stability is a major concern of certainly the British.

The solution may be to use armed force to hold enclaves that stop border movements (and retain some bargaining position for the opposition) and also act as barriers to ISIS – but to secure these enclaves may require sovereign nations to invade another sovereign country which may then turn the business into a war of national liberation and pull in the countervailing regional powers, trigger opportunistic revolts amongst minorities within the primary invading powers and lead the superpowers into a confrontation that neither wants. The problem of Ukraine and the Baltic States lies behind this in a world where everything is connected.

It is, of course, an utter mess. The secrecy of the British Executive in relation to its own Parliament under conditions where many Britons have deeply negative feelings towards the two Sunni regional powers is a sign of its political weakness. The Government does not have the historic consensus on foreign policy to rely on – quite the contrary, although divided the Labour Opposition is led by a man who is suspicious of NATO, prefers dialogue to armed intervention under almost all conceivable conditions and is a known critic of the human rights record of just about everyone.

There are a number of things to consider here other than the obvious fact that, despite Kerry’s sterling work, Russia and, more indirectly, Iran hold all the cards in Syria. The ultimate fear in the White House is that the Sunni states intervene, ‘blow it’ and, in responding, Russia triggers a proto-global conflict by ‘accident’ that results in domestic protests in the West that would make Vietnam look like a picnic. Bear in mind that the New Hampshire Primary has now badly frightened the Washington Establishment – we have two lead candidates who oppose the consensus and many of whose supporters would rather vote for the other than for an Establishment alternative within their own Party.

This utter mess could even be presented as the fifteen year history of a reversal – the blundering attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East has resulted in conditions that threaten liberal democracy at home, initially from a security state mentality and now from reactive revolutionary populisms.

Given the hysteria about terrorism and refugees and the rise of the new left-wing and national populist movements, a major destabilising crisis involving overseas armed engagement would actually destabilise Europe and even perhaps (though less certainly) the US and split the Alliance – what a prize for Mr. Putin! Note the reluctance of the UK Government actually to do anything publicly that would be effective in Syria (using its air power) despite winning a vote. The contentious vote that almost split the Opposition now looks as if it was designed only to cause some political mayhem domestically and to re-establish the principle that the Government could do what it willed.

The truth is that the Western public is deeply divided. It is unlikely to go to war willingly to defend Muslim obscurantism no matter how moderate the Islamists (and it will turn on its own Governments if it is pushed too far). Worse for the old elite, the psychological operation to demonise Russia and give NATO the latitude for action are falling rather flat except amongst the High Tory and Atlanticist Labour converted. Social media scrutiny is creating a substantial minority ready to take a resistance view of the matter and the mass of the population simply do not care but know they are not going to die for a bit of East European black earth or Middle Eastern desert. Short of an instant nuclear exchange, Putin holds a lot of the propaganda cards which he can then turn to his benefit in Europe and especially in destabilising both France (where he has been courting the NF) and Germany (where Russia has always had friends in high places).

In terms of the consequences of a civilised settlement in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may actually be part of the problem for the West, more than Iran and Russia (neither of which actually wants to go to the brink). That is, I believe, understood by policymakers and is a situation that will continue until Obama is replaced (over a year away) but only if his successor is not an outlier like Sanders or Trump, both of whom express some radical new views about America’s interests.

As for Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s attitude to Al-Assad is partly a matter of calculated interest and partly a matter of ‘honour’ that goes back to the assassination of Hariri, their primary agent in the Levant. Killing their regional man requires a remorseless vengeance that cannot end – this is politics but politics that is also personal in a world where the clientage systems of tradition matter. The personal is the political. Honour (no longer an issue in Western rational minds) remains live in Saudi minds.

This is not fully understood by many outside analysts. They dismiss it as ‘irrational’ or something that can be negotiated away but it cannot be so because it has its own inner logic. Saudi networks of allegiance are based on a feudal commitment to service in return for protection. The Saudis failed to protect their man because of ‘treachery’. They must avenge him to show that they will do so in other such cases and that their service providers need not go elsewhere if things get wobbly.

We have also detected a rising Saudi nationalism in the Saudi middle classes – analogous to being British and relating that Britishness to allegiance to the Crown (rather than to the People au Corbyn). A certain degree of militarism and swaggering goes with the territory as it did at the equivalent stage of development in European proto-nationalism. But it is sincere and growing stronger. The primitive view that Saudis are primitives is worse than insulting. It is wrong. It is a highly sophisticated political culture with close links to the British Royal Family and an intimate understanding of power and of how it is held and maintained.

Saudi nationalism rather than simpler reliance on feudal relations is a natural development that is culturally transformative if risky. Many Saudis respond to it.  It has also become a political necessity that binds the old tribal interests with the rising middle classes in a common destiny and it helps to explain a strategy of assertive and disruptive intervention across the region. One’s eyes should turn not north but south to Yemen where this is expressing itself most forcibly and where Western claims about ‘right conduct’ are dismissed when necessary.

For example, the Saudis (and Emiratis) need access to Assab Port to maintain their war in Yemen yet Assab Port is held by a pariah government (Eritrea) as far as the West is concerned. Given the criticality of Ethiopia to the anti-Islamist struggle, the West’s instinct is to retain Eritrea as a pariah (while seeking to bring it into the fold on its terms like Burma or Cuba) yet the Saudis have had the Eritrean President to Riyadh twice late last year and have integrated into their anti-terrorist alliance. The riots and killings in Oromia last week cannot be disconnected from Ethiopian fears of Muslim revolt and the Horn of Africa adds another line to the ever-expanding zone of conflict that now stretches to the Arctic.

The West clearly supports Yemen’s Government against the Houthis (as the Minister for Armed Services’ answer testifies) but no one seriously considers this a serious part of the ‘war on terrorism’ as opposed to a regional strategic play between the Saudi and Iranian networks where the Saudis clearly resent the fact that the West, in the person of Obama but also institutionally in Europe, has shifted towards an obvious and collaborative respect for Iranian aspirations.

Saudi concerns about the Iranians are thus so great that they are quite prepared to destabilise Western anti-Sunni Islamist strategies – not only in Syria but in the Horn of Africa. It is as if the Saudis have said to themselves that they will make themselves troublesome so that the West will have to mollify them by agreeing to their demands, perhaps without realising that the big picture does not allow that. But what is this fearsome big picture? It is one in which the Middle East is only one part of a great whole.

The potential danger of all these instabilities is horrendous. Saudi Arabia is a potentially unstable feudal polity moving towards a modernisation strategy that reminds one of the age of Stolypin under the Tsars. It is countering not merely the strategic interests of the West by default but it may be taking on more than it can administratively handle. And yet it feels it has no alternative. The model may not be Russia and revolution (as so many anti-Saudi liberals assume) but the United Kingdom in the Age of Castlereagh.

Even worse, it has perhaps not understood that the depth of resentment against the Kingdom within the West that was mollified in association with Western Governments after 9/11 has recurred with a vengeance under extremely unstable political conditions – the quite weird situation in the US political cycle with Trump and Sanders, deep concerns in Europe about Saudi involvement in mosque-building, human rights and Islamic migration and, above all, growing perception that, if not backing ISIS, the Kingdom may be backing some dark forces of its own in Greater Syria.

So, Saudi actions in this context are critical. If it enters into the Syrian morasse, with or without Turkey, Egyptian and ‘secret’ British support, and things go wrong, these things that go wrong can go wrong all the way down that fissure that leads to the Arctic, through a basket case of a Ukraine to the Balts who treat Russians as second class citizens. For the first time since the era of Nixon, Western peoples will be faced with the possibility of a nuclear exchange (and not just on the terms of the BBC’s ridiculous war games) and may not take it lying down. Senator Kerry, if he was reported correctly in his outburst to a Syrian NGO activist (“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”) on Saturday subconsciously revealed the truth of the matter – getting this wrong is an existential question now. The end game could be the immolation of the West if we have many more blunders.

[Tim Pendry is Chairman of TPPR – www.tppr.co.uk and http://blog.tppr.co.uk – but only writes on the Next Century Foundation blog in a personal capacity. He welcomes criticism.]

 

 

On the downing of the Russian warplane

We at the Next Century Foundation are gravely concerned over the recent downing of a Russian warplane by the Turkish military. We condemn such actions as unnecessary escalations of tension, and remain, as ever, committed to the diplomatic resolution of conflict.

We are also saddened by the execution of the pilot who bailed out of the jet. The execution of all prisoners of war by all sides is a feature of the conflict in Syria and is against every code of honour in war ever conceived.

Jet

Briton’s anger over US comments on Russia’s action in Syria

A British NCF interlocutor sent this comment to the NCF this morning. It is strongly worded but we thought we would place it on this blog regardless:

So the US is up in arms about Putin’s statement just now. Am I alone in hearing his (Putin’s) words and thinking how they make such sense. I think Russia has it right …. do the job the US coalition can’t. Go in, join whoever the **** is fighting Isis, presumably Asaad’s army, and do the job..

The US coalition has been bombing Isis for over a year now …. and how has that stopped the spread … and the flow of refugees. The West has caused this problem and continues to (inadvertently) fund it, supply it with arms etc etc …. so let Russia have a go … we are all one world. This worldwide threat needs to be put above geopolitics and the West’s obsession with deposing regimes leading to further chaos, displacement of people and heartache.

But no, if Russia goes in, the US will use it as an excuse to take us all into war. Doesn’t it make sense to try and eradicate this world threat first before deposing Asaad?

Just wondering.

U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2013.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2013.

THE FOLLOWING COMES TO US FROM A SENIOR BOARD MEMBER OF THE NCF:

INTRODUCTION & COMMENT: Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia expressed surprise at receiving a call last Saturday from Secretary of State John Kerry warning Moscow not to expand its military role in Syria. Minister Lavrov said that Washington should be aware that Russia has always supported President al-Asad and supplied him with weapons and other assistance.

Of course, it is Washington’s view that Russia’s continued support to the Asad government has actually fostered the growth of ISIS inside Syria and made the situation worse. The State Department spokesman yesterday stated that, ”If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Asad.”

This argument makes little sense. The Syrian government is currently fighting on three fronts. What good would its collapse do us and the broader international interest if Asad is deposed and the subsequent vacuum is filled by the current opposition?

The three main fronts of conflict are as follows —

  1. Almost forty percent of the country is under the control of Islamists fighting for the Islamic State or ISIL as the administration insists in calling it (ISIS or Da’ish are much preferred terms). The bulk of IS fighters are non-Syrian, and their cause is so horrific and abhorrent that no modern, civilized government should be against any force which is keeping them out of Damascus — even if it is the current government’s.
  2. A second front in the south is composed largely of groups of the former Free Syria Army, the Nusra Front — al-Qa’ida’s core group in Syria — and other Islamists and secularists of varying stripe and seriousness.
  3. Meanwhile, it is the the third front in the north which is now bearing down on the Alawi heartland of Latakia where the Russians are basing their new presence. The opposition to al-Asad here is led by the jaysh al-fatah or “army of conquest.” This grouping brings together the Nusra Front (again, al-Qa’ida), other Salafist, and a few secularist groups which are armed, funded, and supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Most of these fighters are believed to be Syrian.

Now, the latter three countries are allegedly allies of the U.S. Note that the strongest member of their ‘army of conquest’ is the Nusrah Front — or “al-Qa’ida” which still considers the USA to be its number one enemy (after Israel perhaps) and one which the U.S. still regularly targets with drone strikes when an opportunity affords itself — especially in Afghanistan and in embattled Yemen.

This is the ‘army’ which recently detained the 50 or so men whom the U.S. had trained to fight the IS — at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. It is also the army which is now within artillery or at least rocket range of Latakia whose 1.5 million pre-war population has now doubled to more than twice that number with frightened Syrian refugees who are fleeing the Islamist onslaught.
It would seem that, during their recent bilaterals about Syria, Secretary Kerry either wasn’t listening to the points made by his Russian counterpart about a potential problem in Syria if Asad is deposed without an acceptable Plan B or that he simply and naively believes the Saudis and the Turks who tell him that these Islamists really aren’t all that bad.

U.S. and western policy towards Syria has been both feckless and ineffective since the first years of the Arab Spring when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. This rather than Benghazi, is her Achilles heel in terms of negligent policy.

The U.S. has never been able to see the forest for the trees on Syria. We have given only the most modest support to UN efforts to introduce a cease-fire, have given in to blatant, biased accounts which have pilloried Bashar while ignoring the equally abhorrent policies of his foes, and have turned a blind eye to calls for a robust UN-sponsored role which might have preserved a government in Syria, started a process of genuine political reform from within, and set the stage for an efficient handling of the unfolding humananitarian catastrophe which has now spread far beyond Syria’s borders and is knocking at Europe’s — but not Arabia’s — doors.

Can matters be turned around? Yes, possibly, but only in partnership with Russia which, in this instance, has had a policy worth listening to and emulating since the start of this war. It is not that the Russians have better Arabists. It is perhaps more the case that their government listens more intently to its specialists than does our own. However, given the record of this administration on Middle East policy, one should not hold one’s breath.

Quite rightly, we don’t trust the Russians. But, perhaps, in this one instance of common cause, we should find a way for some wiggle room and develop and try to implement a policy which will not put an Islamist government in Damascus — moderate or otherwise — which seems to be the desired result of President Erdogan, King Salman, and the Amir of Qatar. End Introduction and Comment.

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“U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria” THE NEW YORK TIMES By Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt

9 September 2015

WASHINGTON — The United States on Tuesday moved to head off preparations for a suspected Russian military buildup in Syria as Bulgaria agreed to an appeal from the Obama administration to shut its airspace to Russian transport planes. The planes’ destination was the Syrian port city of Latakia.

The administration has also asked Greece to close its airspace to the Russian flights, Greek and American officials said, but Greece has not publicly responded to the request.

The apparent Russian military preparations and the Obama administration’s attempt to block them have escalated long-running tensions between the White House and the Kremlin. Although the United States and Russia agree that the Islamic State is a threat, the new dispute shows that they remain far apart on how best to combat the militant group and on the political future of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — divisions that are likely to be on display when President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin speak to the United Nations General Assembly this month.

The administration’s concerns were fueled last week by intelligence reports indicating that Russia appeared to be making preparations to deploy advisers and military personnel to an airfield south of Latakia and might also bring in aircraft and fly airstrikes from there.

Those preparations included the delivery of prefabricated housing for as many as 1,000 personnel and a portable air traffic control station to the airfield.

Over the weekend, two giant Russian Condor transport planes ferried more supplies and equipment from an air base in southern Russia across Iran and Iraq to Latakia, according to an American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was discussing intelligence reports.

A Russian troop transport plane, probably an Ilyushin model, also landed at the same airfield in Latakia over the weekend. That aircraft, which flew over Greece and Bulgaria, is believed to have carried Russian military personnel.

“They’re clearly establishing some sort of forward operating base,” the American official said.

There have also been unconfirmed sightings of Russian Spetsnaz special forces at the Syrian Naval Academy, officials said.

Providing a benign explanation for the operations, the Russian news media has suggested that the planes were carrying humanitarian assistance. That is the same rationale Russia used to explain convoys that are believed to have delivered military supplies to Ukrainian separatists and that Iran has used to fly arms to Damascus to support the Assad government.

Bulgarian officials said on Tuesday that they had closed their nation’s airspace to Russian transport planes through Sept. 24.

“The reason for the refusal is associated with incorrect information in the requests to fly over the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria regarding the purpose of the flights and the cargo,” Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

While Bulgaria’s move will block one of the major air routes from Russia to Greece, it does not fully resolve the issue since Russia may still be able to continue its flights over Iran and Iraq. There is also a route from Russia to Syria over Turkey, but Russians avoid Turkish airspace because they fear the Turks will force a Russian military plane to land, as they have in the past.

State Department officials declined to discuss publicly what requests have been made to foreign governments to close their airspace to Russian aircraft, citing the need to maintain the confidentiality of diplomatic communications. But the officials made clear they were pressing the issue.

“We have encouraged our allies and partners to ask tough questions of Russia’s increased military deployments to Syria,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman.

At the least, the flights have highlighted the deepening differences between the United States and Russia over Syria. While the Obama administration has argued that Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown against his opponents fueled the sectarian passions that strengthened the Islamic State, the Russians still appear to see the Syrian president as a bulwark against extremists, at least for now.

Western officials say that Russia’s intentions are not entirely clear. Although Mr. Putin spoke in Vladivostok last week about the need to form a coalition against the Islamic State, Iran and the Syrian government appear to be the only potential members so far.

One possibility is that Russia is not only trying to support the Syrian government but is trying to expand its role inside Syria so it can influence the choice of a new Syrian government in case Mr. Assad is ousted. Another theory is that Russia is putting itself in a position to defend a rump state should Mr. Assad be driven from Damascus and find refuge in a stronghold near the coast. None of these possibilities are mutually exclusive.

On Saturday Mr. Kerry called Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and warned Russia not to expand its military role in Syria. On Monday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lavrov said that the Kremlin had long provided military assistance to the Syrian government in its fight against extremists and expressed surprise at Mr. Kerry’s warning.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Kirby repeated the criticism of Russia’s role.

“Russia is not a member of the coalition against ISIL, and what we’ve said is that their continued support to the Assad regime has actually fostered the growth of ISIL inside Syria and made the situation worse,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.” ###

What Russia expects to gain and lose from the Iranian nuclear accord

Hassan_Rouhani_and_Vladimir_Putin_(1)
The July 14th agreement on Iran’s nuclear program with the P5+1 will prove fruitful for Russia in the immediate future. Sanctions-relief on Iran has provided Russia a greater opportunity to do business with the Islamic Republic. Russia has already signed lucrative deals with Iran in the past 12 months. In November 2014, Russia signed a multi-billion dollar agreement with Iran to build two nuclear reactors at the Bushehr nuclear power plant. In addition to constructing the facilities, Russia will sell nuclear fuel for the reactors.

The economic benefits of the relationship also cover areas of military cooperation. Russia has signed an agreement to sell and transfer Russian military equipment to Iran in the future. This includes the continued transfer of the controversial S-300 anti-missile defence system. Russia understands that Iran’s military is out-dated and is in urgent need of modern weapons, so taking advantage of the continued mistrust on military matters between the West and Iran means Russia will continue to have an advantage in this sector. Similarly, Russia has made headway in selling space technology, investing in oil and gas drilling, exporting pipeline construction and railway development in Iran.

On the other hand, Russia is set to lose out on the gradual entrance of cheap Iranian oil and gas to the world energy market. The already low price of oil and gas has battered the Russian economy intensely, with prospects of cheap Iranian oil gushing the market significantly reducing the revenue of Russia’s main export to the world. An increase in natural gas exports from Iran to the region will put downward pressure on gas prices, reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. According to energy market analysts, it would take Iran approximately one year to increase its oil and gas production capacity. To prepare for this, Russia has taken a couple of measures to mitigate the consequence by signing a twenty-billion dollars barter arrangement, where Russia buys up Iranian oil in exchange for Russian goods and services. In effect, this would mean Russia could hoard surplus oil from the world energy market until prices rise.

Geopolitically, the nuclear accord is likely to empower Iran as a regional power, allowing it to execute its foreign policy with fewer constraints from the international community. Russia and Iran stand to gain from cooperating with each other on regional issues, like keeping Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power, whilst uniting in opposition to Saudi Arabia’s actions in the region. Russia has substantial concerns for Saudi Arabia’s support for Sunni radicalism in the region and its potential of entering Russia’s troubled Caucasus region. It would also be a symbolic sign of protest against Saudi Arabia’s effort to reduce global oil prices, which has undermined Russia’s economy.

Lastly, Russia’s further cooperation with Iran ensures that it will retain a foothold in the region, influencing Middle Eastern diplomacy from a non-western approach. In sum, Russia is set to gain from the nuclear accord, albeit with an impact on Russia’s energy market.

Why has Putin redoubled his efforts in Syria?

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad meet in December, 2006.
Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad meet in December, 2006.

Many commentators are wondering why Russia has recently redoubled its efforts in supporting the Syrian government. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reiterated his unwavering support for President Bashar Al-Assad.

There are a number of reasons for this, some range from lucrative military trade deals to preventing a foreign-aided overthrow of the government, but most importantly it has been to retain the geopolitical status Russia continues to enjoy in the Middle East. Putin sees himself as a peace broker and an essential element in preserving Russia’s status as an “alternative”, non-interventionist nation opposed to Western style diplomacy in the Middle East.

Ironically, this style has not been seen recently. There are reports that on August 12th Senior Russian military advisers were flown in to Latakia, an Alawite stronghold in the coast. Similar sources indicate a Russian military build-up and increase in equipment transfers near Syrian-army bases. On September 3rd, The Times reported a Russian Air Force battalion, BTR-82A, with clips of Russian-commands being spoken on Syrian national television, participating in combat.

So why fuel the fire? The immediate answer is that the Assad’s summer pullback has indicated to Putin that the government is not stable enough to deflect the ISIS offensive. For Putin, ISIS is the ultimate enemy and the importance of destroying the ideology’s appeal is of strategic significance. The increased Russian-born Islamist recruits from the troubled Caucuses regions indicates just that. Putin is intent on breaking the ISIS threat and intends to do so by creating a new anti-ISIS coalition, one that entails a continuation of Assad’s rule. However, unlike previous strategies, Putin is breaking his own rule of vetoing direct third-party involvement in internal affairs. The consequence of this change will only be visible in the long term.

The USA and Russia bury the hatchet to focus on Syria – at last

GCC meeting pic
Secretary Kerry participates in the GCC meeting

In the first few days of August, the foreign ministers of the GCC, Russia and the U.S. descended on Doha, Qatar, for talks. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, assured GCC foreign ministers that the risk Iran poses had been greatly minimised as a result of the Iran nuclear deal. Secretary Kerry had just been to Egypt where he assured his counterpart, Sameh Shoukry that “There can be absolutely no question that if the Vienna plan is fully implemented, it will make Egypt and all the countries of this region safer than they otherwise would be or were”.

Secretary Kerry clearly wanted to secure the support of America’s crucial Persian Gulf allies for the deal in a bid to give it more credibility, as the Obama administration is currently fighting to prevent a Congressional attempt to derail the deal. The GCC states gave Kerry tacit support for the nuclear deal, saying that it should bring stability and “good neighbourliness”, rather than interference.

Qatari foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiyah said the alliance wanted to spare the region “from any dangers and threats from any nuclear weapons.” He said that this should be done by authorising the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes in line with international rules. Many Gulf States are worried that the agreement will quicken reconciliation between Tehran and Washington, emboldening the Islamic Republic to support their paramilitary allies in the region. 

Russia’s agenda

A curious and clearly significant meeting occurred on the sidelines of this GCC meeting, where Secretary Kerry held trilateral talks with the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, regarding the Syrian Civil War. Ever since the Iran nuclear deal, which Russia helped in securing, Moscow has been ramping up its once low-key foreign policy in the region. There has been a marked rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Russia, with the Saudi Minister of Defence Mohamed Bin Salman recently meeting President Putin. This trilateral talk between Saudi Arabia, Russia and the U.S. marks a significant rise in not only Russia’s foreign policy presence, but also of Saudi Arabia’s.  The meeting looked at ways forward for the Syrian conflict, and attempted to find common ground in the fight against ISIS.

Secretary Kerry announced that the US would defend moderate Syrian rebels against any attack, thus suggesting it could target Syrian government troops in future. Mr Lavrov condemned this new strategy and said it would be a violation of international law and represents an obstacle on the road to forming a united front against terrorism. He added that Russia provides military and technical support to the Syrian government to fight ISIS, just as they provide support to Iraq to do the same. Kerry stressed Washington’s commitment to supporting anti-ISIS fighters on the ground but also, that Assad’s “brutality” against Syrians is helping incite foreign fighters to join ISIS. At least publicly, Secretary Kerry and Mr Lavrov kept to the same line they have maintained since the onset of the conflict.

The man to watch?

Another meeting that was not reported in the press and is worth mentioning was Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with former chairman of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib during his working visit to Qatar. They focused on discussing the situation in Syria and emphasised the need to find political settlement of the Syrian crisis. Moaz al-Khatib is arguably one of Syria’s most respected opposition figures and one possible reading of this meeting is that it is hinting at Lavrov’s diminishing faith in Assad. The West loves Moaz because, as one NCF member put it, “He doesn’t throw all his toys out of the pram”.

A Damascus-Riyadh link?

At the end of last month Syrian National Security Bureau chief, Ali Mamlouk visited Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to have an unusual talk with the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman. This unexpected meeting has been described as “the miracle meeting”. The sit down was brokered by President Vladimir Putin of Russia who, after organising it, flew Mamlouk – one of Assad’s chief advisers – to meet Prince Mohammad. During their meeting Mamlouk appealed to Prince Mohammad for Saudi Arabia to change its policy regarding Syria, saying that Qatar was unduly influencing Riyadh. Mamlouk also thanked Russia for it’s “noble initiative” and said that Saudi Arabia and Syria both need to resolve their differences. At the same time Mamlouk blamed Saudi Arabia for everything that’s happened in Syria and accused the Kingdom of submitting itself to the will of Qatar’s ruling elite.

Prince Mohammed responded to this by expressing his fears to Mamlouk that Iran was exercising too much influence in Syria. He said that Saudi’s main issue with Syria is that they let themselves be led by Iran who are involved in a large scale conflict with Saudi on the level of the entire region. The deputy crowned prince ended the discussion by saying “may this meeting be an opening for us to talk to each other”. The two parties agreed to maintain communication but did not arrange a date for another meeting.

And meanwhile Iran

While these talks were happening, several Arab newspapers published an article written by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, asking the GCC states to work with Iran to counteract instability in the Middle East. As optimistic as the tone was, the reality is that Iran and Saudi Arabia remain arch-rivals in the Middle East, and the recent incident of a deadly sectarian bombing in Bahrain suggests that Saudi-Iranian competition won’t be abated anytime soon.

For more detailed behind the scenes analysis those that are subscribing members of the NCF can go to the private NCF blog 

Russia’s Game in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt
Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt

For Russia, the Middle East has historically been a region of strategic and economic importance. Russia is seen as an alternative to the Western ideological framework, granting it a special status in the area. Apart from being a consistent alternate power, Russia’s objectives and policies in the Middle East have always changed depending on its relationship with the Western powers.

In March 2012 Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency as a different figure. Seemingly more anti-Western and disappointed by the failure of Obama’s RESET policy, the Libyan crisis of 2011 and the ongoing sanctions on Iran, he is more confrontational, unpredictable and assertive in his actions with the West. Interestingly enough, this was not the case under Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, which focused on fostering relations with the West and as a result took a more hands-off approach in the Middle East. The current U-turn originates in what Putin sees as covert Western involvement in the Arab Spring of 2011, reminiscent of the colour revolutions that were inspired by the West in post-Soviet republics. For Putin, these red flags suggest that Russia’s presence in the Middle East is necessary to protect vital spheres of influence and sustain Russia’s image as a great power. For this reason, the world faces a reinvigorated return of Russia in the Middle East, albeit a confused return.

To contextualize Russia’s aims, one needs to look no further than the paramount diplomatic issue facing the country. The current crisis in Ukraine consumes almost all of Moscow’s financial, military and political capital away from the Middle East, justifying the lost long-term objective in the region. Rather than envisaging a definitive goal for Russia’s interest in the area, the agenda seems to jump from crisis to crisis. Looking at Russia’s cooperation with the Middle East on an individual basis, a pattern of cautious engagement starts to appear.

Russia’s relations with the GCC countries is one that avoids politicization. Instead of condemning various monarchies on their human rights record and lack of democratic progress, Russia takes a pragmatic stance. It vehemently believes in non-interference in internal affairs and taking a position on these issues would be an unusual precedent. Establishing democracy in Qatar or Saudi Arabia is not important. In fact, this would almost certainly be disadvantageous to Russia.

In Riyadh, those on the upper echelons of power are loyal to the U.S.-Saudi alliance so the recent secretive deals between high-ranking Russian and Saudi officials seem out of place. Putin and the Deputy Crown Prince, a less pro-Washington figure in the Saudi leadership, met in St. Petersburg in June 2015, indicating King Salman’s change of policy with Russia. There are unconfirmed talks of investing in the construction of nuclear power plants, increasing arms sales, and negotiating oil prices. This is understandable, considering the fact that the current Saudi leadership is disillusioned with Obama’s policy in the Middle East, especially regarding Iran, and thus aims at cementing bilateral ties with the Russian leadership. The Saudi objective is to dissuade Putin from his unwavering support of Assad, whereas Putin’s is to reduce Saudi’s overwhelming influential oil production, in order to spike global oil prices. Although Russia takes advantage of its position as an alternative power when cracks appear between Arab countries and the U.S., the recent Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, puts Russia in an awkward position.

Russia’s key concern over Yemen is Saudi Arabia undermining the authority of the UN Security Council and bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen without prior authorization. Apart from lucrative trade deals and opportunism, Russia is keen on maintaining the international world order and makes enormous use of the UNSC for political leverage. In a sign of dissatisfaction, Russia abstained in a vote on UNSC Resolution 2216, a vote that Saudi Arabia heavily lobbied Russia for, which called for a withdrawal of Houthis from Sanaa. With the situation in Yemen rapidly deteriorating and the recent rise of ISIS fighters, Moscow’s concern for the Gulf area is uncommonly high. Comments from the Russian Foreign Ministry echo a need for all Yemeni political forces to start a “full-fledged national dialogue under the auspices of the UN”. The nature of the situation means that Russia is intent on keeping third-party players strictly outside the political resolution.

Concerning Iran, Russia plays a balancing act due to its cordial ties with Israel. Under Putin, the current relations with Tehran suggest a positive step towards reintegrating Iran into the international arena. This is demonstrated by Russia’s decision to lift the ban on a weapons trade deal with Iran after making progress on the P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear programme. The sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles goes back to 2010, but was temporarily halted due to intense lobbying by Israel and the West. Although Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, emphasizes the defensive nature of the deal, the missile system can be used to shoot down jets and other missiles, increasing Iran’s capacity to subdue a threat to its nuclear facilities. This is a concern for Israel, which has been the most vocal advocate against the Iran nuclear deal and has warned of sanctions relief as a chance for Iran to engage in ‘sanctions for arms’. Another factor that Russia has in mind when dealing with Shia Iran is that twenty percent of Russia’s population is Muslim, of which ninety percent are Sunni. Keeping a delicate balance of not frustrating one side too much is a long-standing talent that Russia holds.

In Tel Aviv, Russia’s relationship is more complex than the other Middle Eastern nations. This is partly due to the huge Russian émigré population. There are around one million Russian speakers in Israel, with direct economic and cultural ties to Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Russian ties range from military collaboration to oil supply contracts and visa-free agreements. In the scientific sphere, Russia has numerous nuclear, space and technological agreements that it does not have with other Middle Eastern countries. In fact, the countries are so closely linked that the Russian President and the Israeli Prime Minister have encrypted communication lines to guarantee no eavesdropping. With this in mind, Russia has a stronger cultural connection to Israel than it does to any other Middle Eastern country. Moscow is also hoping to establish a long-lasting friendship that will lessen Israel’s dependency on the United States. There is potential for this to happen, as Israel recently decided to cancel its drone sale to Ukraine in the midst of the crisis.

The situation with Assad differs greatly. The problem with Syria is that after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia neglected to support and continue the well-established links with the remaining pro-Russian political base. This was indicative during the leadership change from Hafez al-Assad to Bashar al-Assad in 2000, whereby now the Russian security services are hastily trying to revive those connections in order to cement Russia’s position in Syrian politics no matter the political outcome of the civil war. In terms of the Syrian war, Russia, along with Iran, continues to sell arms to Assad. Putin is intent on keeping Assad in power and sees no better alternative to him. A repeat of Libya, where a bloody power vacuum was created after the toppling of the regime, is a worst-case scenario for Russia, considering Syria’s proximity to its borders. Bearing in mind that there are 1,500-2000 Russian foreign fighters in Syria, of which 500 have declared allegiance to ISIS, the question of their potential return to Russia is of great seriousness. Russia’s priority in Syria is for stability in the area, in order to stem the draw for violent Jihadism, as well as allowing resources to be focused on more pressing issues, such as Ukraine. Russia takes an opportunistic stance with the war in Syria, whereby it advocates peace negotiations with all sides, whilst selling arms to Assad. It has capitalized on taking on the role of a peacekeeper. Some argue that the message sent from the Kremlin to the West is one that follows the line of ‘you need us for stability in the Middle East’, which serves as a warning against intensifying the situation in Ukraine. In fact, Russia has facilitated numerous forums, talks, and conferences between the Syrian leadership and the opposition.

In the hydrocarbon sphere, Russia’s policy remains the same. That is to maximize Russian revenue from natural resource extraction and deals. Although the region is a serious challenge to Russia’s dominance of the European energy market, Russia is intent on either minimizing Middle Eastern involvement, or if unable to do so, have a stake in Middle Eastern hydrocarbon enterprises in Europe. This has been demonstrated by the activity of Russian oil companies in Iraq. Lukoil continues to work in unstable provinces, regardless of the threat of terror. During the ISIS surge in the summer of 2014, BP and ExxonMobil evacuated their personnel, whereas the Russian plant had evacuation plans but continued to operate in the West Qurna Field. Russian arms producers have increased their revenues as well, with Iraq being one of the main importers of arms.

A key aim for Russia is avoiding international isolation, as is the current case with the U.S. and Europe. The Middle East provides space for this isolation to be offset, as seen in Russia’s increased agricultural trade with the region. This has mitigated the effects of the self-imposed food sanctions of August 2014 by replacing agricultural produce with imports from Iran, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. In return, Russia exports wheat, barley, and rye to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Except for agricultural produce, Russia is mostly known for its arms sales in the region. In 2013 Russian arms sales to Syria and Egypt totaled USD$1.5 billion. In a limited sense, Russian foreign policy in the Middle East can be described as Kalashnikov diplomacy. Its policy does not have a lot of capacity and lacks a long-term goal. Much of its policies are determined by the failure of policies by the West. Furthermore, the agenda lacks any clear objective in the region.

Looking at relations as a whole shows Russia’s willingness to work with anti-Western nations but its incapacity to fulfill its promises. Whether this is due to Russia not seeing the Middle East as a priority for its foreign policy or because of resource drainage in Ukraine, this predicament is here to stay. With this in mind, there is still a pattern that can be seen from Russia’s relationship with the Middle East. Firstly, Russia continues to reject military intervention by third-party players as a way to resolve internal political issues. Secondly, it supports the current borders and advocates for stability in the region. Finally, it continues to capitalize on the desire of Middle Eastern countries to have an alternative power to work with.

Russia has a relatively pragmatic and flexible foreign policy regarding the Middle East, where Russia is keen on working with countries willing to cooperate, whilst upholding ‘red lines’ on regime change. It has learned from the mistake of allowing the Libyan no-fly zone morph into a NATO campaign to overthrow the Gaddafi government. It is keen on maximizing its revenues from the region whilst providing stability to the area. However, Russia lacks a concrete plan in the Middle East and seems to be improvising policy as it goes. Although useful at times, it is unsustainable both for Russia’s aim of remaining a credible international power and for stability in the region.

Russian efforts to promote peace in Syria slow from a crawl to a snail’s pace

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In November 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks with Assad’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, as part of Moscow’s renewed diplomatic push to restart peace talks on Syria. Less than a year later, in April 2015, the second “inter-Syrian consultative meeting” was held in Moscow which Lavrov referred to as “evidence of progress and shared achievement between all participants”. Overall, Russia believes it has played an important role by instigating and moderating what is referred to as the “Moscow Process”.

The first “inter-Syrian consultative meeting” in Moscow took place in January 2015 and for the first time, representatives of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, plus various “approved” opposition groups and mutually acceptable elements of what the Russian convenors regarded as Syrian civil society, were invited to come to Moscow by the Foreign Ministry, sat at the same table and initiated peace talks. Most of the larger secular groups were excluded as being too divisive including Syria’s most powerful Kurdish group, the PYD; the opposition Baath Party (called the Iraqi Baath within Syria because many fled to Iraq when they split with Hafiz al Assad); and the secular nationalists like the United Nationals Democratic Alliance (UNDA). There was no goal set in any effort to formulate a joint political document, but a dozen principles (The Moscow principles) were formulated by the meeting’s moderator, Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, Vitaly Naumkin. These fairly anodyne guidelines reflected the best that could be achieved in regard to the participants common will to move forward. It was claimed they could be used “as a foundation for future talks which is crucial in order to uphold Syria’s sovereignty, integrity and independence and to fight terrorism and extremism”. However mostly the Moscow principles state the blindingly obvious like “Syria should have the Golan” or “We oppose terrorism”.

This Moscow principles:

  1. Preservation of the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic, its unity, independence and territorial integrity.
  2. Countering international terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and the consolidation of efforts in the fight against terrorists and extremists on Syrian soil.
  3. Resolution of the crisis in Syria by peaceful political methods on the basis of accord, based on the principles of the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012.
  4. Determination of Syria’s future on the basis of the free and democratic expression of the will of the Syrian people.
  5. Unacceptability of outside interference in Syrian affairs.
  6. Ensuring the continuity of state institutions, including the army, the armed forces, and reforming them solely by legitimate means.
  7. Ensuring civic peace through full-fledged participation by all strata of the Syrian people in the country’s political and socio-economic life, ensuring the equality of all ethnic and religious groups of the population on a legislative and practical level.
  8. Rule of law and equality of all citizens before the law.
  9. Unacceptability of any foreign military presence on Syrian territory without the consent of the Syrian government.
  10. The need to end the occupation of the Golan Heights.
  11. Lifting sanctions on the Syrian people.

As for the April consultative meeting, Foreign Minister Lavrov again affirmed that the key priority was “to consolidate all Syrian patriots and all democratic forces against this threat (terrorism), but in order to do so they must temporarily suspend all their conflicts and differences” which seemed wishful thinking at best. There was little or no outcome to this meeting other than the establishment of a Russian-proposed schedule for future talks. Russia ended with the lame statement that “The effort needs to come from within as only the Syrians have the ability to affect real change”.

This week, a senior Russian diplomat informed the Next Century Foundation that a compromise between the government and the opposition was Russia’s primary objective. The diplomat told us that the Russian National Security Advisor will soon be arranging new meetings in order to address Syria’s current situation, and Bashar al-Assad is said to have been “very helpful throughout the entire process”. Additionally, our source claimed there were now no chemical weapons in Syria for which the destruction deadline was June 30, 2014. An announcement of agreement was made by the United States and Russia in September 2013 and the last declared chemical weapons were shipped out of Syria for destruction on June 23, 2014.

In regard to ISIS, the NCF’s Russian source believes ISIS could eventually be the catalyst that pushes Russia and the United States to join forces in order to eradicate “such an unpredictable source of danger”. By way of a footnote, the Russian diplomat added that, the British Government merely wishes to discuss the possibility of a transitional government in Syria but that this would not be sufficient to placate international governments with an interest in the region.

Meanwhile, current UN action is equally lame. In 2012, two rounds of talks were hosted in Geneva on this crisis, the first set a pattern by being held without the participation of the Iranian government, a crucial element in any peace talks, and led to the Geneva Communiqué, which put forward a plan of action for a peaceful Syrian-led transition based on the “Establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers that could include members of the government and opposition, and should be formed on the basis of mutual consent”. The second round was strongly criticized for being a mere “media show” run by Western countries that sided with the opposition. These talks ended with no positive outcome.

The new UN Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, having failed in an attempt to create an enduring cease fire in Aleppo, announced on May 5th the beginning of new consultations on Syria with the intent to find viable solutions to the ongoing Syrian crisis but added that they are “neither a conference nor are they Geneva 3”. That being said, Russia says it is willing to continue the inter-Syrian consultations in Moscow and, if necessary, go along with the United Nations procedures in Geneva in order to find a solution to the crisis in Syria. Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva has said that the two processes will complement each other.

Unfortunately, a very high price paid by the Syrian people each day for the international community’s failure to make a concerted effort to push forward on a peace process.