Did Russia Just Throw Assad Under the Bus?

Not really. Watch what the Kremlin does, not what it says.

Western press accounts jumped on suggestions today that Russia may be backing away from the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to reported remarks of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's point-person for Middle East diplomacy, "As far as the victory of the opposition is concerned, it cannot be ruled out, and, to our regret, one should face the facts. The tendency is right in that direction, the regime and the authorities are increasingly losing control over an increasing territory."

Poor Bogdanov.

For the second time, remarks attributed to him are causing a big stir. Back in August, Bogdanov was quoted by Saudi newspaper al-Watan suggesting that Assad was prepared to step down. But the Russian government vehemently denied the interview had even taken place. When Saudi journalists posted an MP3 of the alleged interview on the Web, the Russians stuck to their guns and labeled it a forgery.

This time around, it actually wouldn't hurt to read the rest of what Bogdanov said. His remarks at a hearing of the Public Chamber in Moscow suggest that, while the Russians are indeed likely to drop their support for Assad when the writing is finally on the wall, we probably aren't at that point yet.

To understand Russia's current thinking consider the following passages from Bogdanov's appearance:

"They (the opposition) say they control 60 percent of Syrian territory, but we say: if you want to keep going, there is still 40 percent. If 60 percent [have been conquered] in two years of civil war, you will then need another year or a year and a half. If by now 40,000 people have died, the fight will get more fierce and you will lose dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people. If you agree to that price for overthrowing a president, what can we do then? We, of course, think that this is absolutely unacceptable."

"A campaign being waged by the West with support from the Arab League to distort Russia's stance on Syria is aimed at weakening our influence in the region and at freezing Russia's future relations with the Middle East and North Africa."

So what, if anything, has actually changed? Amid a flurry of comments from the Syrian opposition and their foreign supporters that the Assad regime is finished, as yet there's been no meaningful sign that the Russians are willing to withdraw valuable political, military, and economic support for Assad. (To be sure, Iran's support for Assad is of far greater consequence for events on the ground.)

Indeed, the evidence runs in the opposite direction. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday said, "We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad. ... All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor." Other official spokesmen never miss an opportunity to condemn the militarization of the conflict, foreign interference in Syria's domestic affairs, and even NATO's plan to provide Patriot missiles to Turkey to help guard its airspace against Syrian incursions. And both Time magazine and ProPublica have reported recently on Syrian skullduggery to arrange continued imports of Russian attack helicopters and Russian-printed Syrian banknotes, which are helping keep the shaky Syrian economy afloat.

The main thing the Russians have done lately is stick a toe back in the diplomatic waters.  By reengaging with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi last week, Lavrov is trying to breathe new life into the June 2011 Geneva principles that spelled out a possible political resolution to the crisis. But the situation on the ground has changed a great deal since those ideas first appeared, with the momentum shifting in the rebels' favor and the United States, key Arab countries, Turkey, France, and England, among others, recognizing the opposition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

So what's holding the Russians back? Unfortunately, it's a pretty long list of concerns.

Moscow is deeply troubled by the West's increasing support for humanitarian intervention in internal conflicts such as Libya and Syria. It fears that this approach potentially sets a dangerous precedent for situations much closer to home, including on the territory of the former Soviet Union. While the Russians and Chinese were willing to give the NATO-Arab League coalition a pass on Libya (both abstained on the crucial U.N. resolution that authorized "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from Muammar al-Qaddafi's murderous regime), they are trying to hold the line in Syria. To their ears, U.S. claims about supporting the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people and other parts of the Middle East are a mere smokescreen for America's desire to promote regime change where and when it sees fit.

The Russians also worry about what might happen if events in Syria continue to spin out of control. The worsening security situation in the restive North Caucasus (which is basically part of the same neighborhood) helps focus their thinking. If Syria falls apart, the argument goes, it could easily become a hub for training and operations by Sunni extremists and even a potential source of loose WMD for like-minded jihadis in Dagestan and beyond.

For geopolitically inclined Russians, the crisis in Syria is largely about the emerging fault line in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia. If Assad is toppled, the impact on Iran's stature and interests in the region could be far-reaching. Moscow is worried about any outcome in Syria that makes military action against Iran easier to contemplate or increases the regional ambitions of Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Finally, there is the admittedly murky web of relationships between Russian and Syrian military and intelligence officials, which stretch back many decades. On the surface, the dollar value of some of these arrangements can seem fairly modest. For example, from 2007-2011, Syria was only the 7th-largest market for Russian arms, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, purchasing a mere 3 percent of the country's exports. The dilapidated, small-scale Russian naval repair facility at Tartus bears little resemblance to the strategically important Mediterranean port depicted in press accounts. But it's worth asking whether the parochial interests of the Russian security establishment are a big part of why the Kremlin is holding on to its longstanding partners in Syria so tenaciously.

Whatever the reason, we should not be surprised if Moscow's obstinance on Syria proves rather durable.



Launch This

Why Barack Obama needs to reset his North Korea policy.

Kim Jong Un may have a few more tricks up his sleeve. In fact, North Korea's successful launch Wednesday of a long-range rocket may be just the first in a series of moves by Pyongyang, demonstrating that it is not only striving to become a nuclear power but also a grave danger to regional security. Whatever drives North Korea -- national security concerns, domestic politics, Kim family prestige -- Washington should treat its success as a wake-up call, realize its policies have failed and explore options for a rebalanced approach that includes more active diplomacy.

While the long-range rocket test appears to have brought Pyongyang closer to fielding a viable weapon, the threat to the United States is not going to appear overnight. The Unha cannot reach the continental United States armed with a heavy warhead, nor has the North perfected the technologies needed for such a weapon, such as a re-entry vehicle or heat shield. The situation, however, will likely grow more dangerous from here. In five years, North Korea might have 50 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them regionally; in a decade it might have the capability to strike the United States. Moreover, as its stockpile of bombs and missiles grows, the North will be looking for export markets, confident that it will be difficult to punish a country armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

Besides the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction, the North could continue its provocative behavior, like it did in March 2010 by sinking the South Korean ship Cheonan and by bombarding a South Korean island in Nov 2010. If the South strikes back, it could lead to destructive war -- one that could draw in the United States and China on opposite sides. North Korea is thought to have 13,000 pieces of artillery near the Demilitarized Zone that separates it from its southern neighbor, many within range of Seoul -- a city of 10 million people.

While these dangers may seem to merit obvious attention, the Obama administration has ignored them. Like the conservative South Korean government currently in power, the Obama team erroneously believes that a politically unstable, economically weak North Korea will eventually buckle under pressure -- resulting in better deals at the negotiating table--if Pyongyang returns to talks.

On occasion, the administration has tried to reach out to Pyongyang, but those efforts have failed, in part because of Washington's own shortcomings. The Korean press has reported that current and retired U.S. officials have traveled Pyongyang to assure the North that the United States harbors peaceful intentions. Those efforts have failed, in part because of their juxtaposition with a U.S. decision in October to allow South Korea to extend the range of its own ballistic missiles to cover the whole of the North. Likewise, while the administration viewed President Obama's November speech in Burma, where he offered an "extended hand" from the United States if North Korea would simply "let go" of its nuclear weapons, as a significant gesture, from Pyongyang's perspective it was nothing new. The North Koreans have heard similar lines a thousand times before. The overall impression left by U.S. policy is not "strategic patience" -- a fancy Washington euphemism for doing nothing -- but strategic drift.

The successful rocket launch should compel the Obama administration to discard the myths that form the shaky foundation of current policy:

1. North Korea is not a failed state that can never achieve its nuclear or economic ambitions. It is moving slowly down each road.

2. Contrary to the belief that North Korea does not abide by agreements, Pyongyang gutted a multi-billion dollar program during the 1990s that could have produced as many as 100 nuclear weapons because of an agreement with Washington.

3. The North is not a hermit kingdom. It is developing close economic relations with China, sending hundreds of North Koreans overseas for educational and business training; and it recently hired the German Kempinski hotel group to run the largest hotel in Pyongyang.

4. North Korean leaders are no more irrational than other world leaders: They're working to build closer relations with China and buttress their own defenses in response to perceived threats.

5. Beijing is not going to solve the North Korea problem for Washington; it is more interested in stability on its borders than U.S. nuclear concerns.

With these in mind, the White House should launch a policy review led by a prominent American official or former official, like the one conducted by former Secretary of Defense William Perry after the North Korean rocket test in 1998. The review would provide a realistic assessment of developments since Kim Jung Un took power a year ago. It would focus on the still ongoing political transition that has led to questions about regime stability, the future of Pyongyang's domestic policy given hints that Kim may dismantle his father's legacy, and the foreign policy direction of a stronger, more confident North Korea. Any review must also consider options for firming up existing defense programs and exploring new ones -- such as theater ballistic missile defense -- to safeguard the security of the United States and its allies against a North Korea bristling with nuclear-tipped missiles.

The United States doesn't need to scrap its entire North Korea policy. It should still seek a United Nations resolution, if only to protect its credibility and that of the U.N., since both warned North Korea against testing its rocket. But the administration should also be thinking ahead about how to communicate with Pyongyang after the U.N. debate, particularly if China prevents it from enacting tougher measures against the North.

It is hard to understand why the United States and its European allies hold fairly regular senior-level negotiations with Iran despite Teheran's bad behavior but refuse to hold similar sessions with Pyongyang. No one thinks that the North Koreans would behave if only U.S. officials spoke with them but such meetings could be useful, first exploring the possibility of finding common ground that would serve the interests of both sides, then possibly more substantive discussions that would start to address security challenges posed by the North.

One approach where it may be possible to find common ground would be to replace the armistice in effect since the Korean War almost six decades ago with permanent arrangements to end hostilities on the peninsula, and to link that effort to limiting, reducing, and eliminating the threat from the North's weapons of mass destruction. That would address both sides' security concerns -- the threat Pyongyang believes the United States poses, and Washington's concerns about the North's growing nuclear and missile programs. Such an approach might also yield an important diplomatic bonus by securing Chinese support because it shows Beijing that the United States is interested in more than just pressuring and destabilizing the North.

Four years from now, as President Obama's second term draws to an end, the American public will focus on his domestic and foreign policy legacy, from his landmark health care program to ending the war in Afghanistan. What does he want his record on North Korea to show: a hard problem more or less contained or a rogue state armed with dozens of nuclear weapons well on its way to threatening California?

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