Over the last few days there has been a flood of news stories about Syria and Russia. There has been a storm of criticism of Russian arms sales to Syria. Shortly after unverified reports appeared of the use by the Syrian government of helicopter gunships to attack the rebels in Syria the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned what she said were sales of such helicopter gunships by Russia to Syria. A British insurer has now withdrawn insurance cover to a Russian ship (referred to by officials as “the ship of death”) that is supposedly transporting helicopter gunships to Syria. There have been media reports, some of which have even found their way into the Russian press, of the movement of Russian warships to Syria and of the deployment of Russian marines to Syria. There has even been an incredible story of Russian plans to hold military exercises in Syria supposedly involving 90,000 troops together with ships and aircraft drawn not only from Russia but also from China and Iran.
These reports have occurred alongside speculation that Russia is engaged in secret talks with the United States for a settlement of the Syrian crisis. Supposedly this involves Russia agreeing to the removal of Syria’s President Bashaar Al Assad in return for western assurances for the protection of Russian interests in Syria. These tend to focus on a naval base Russia has at the Syrian port of Tartus. I have read commentaries in the American press about the supposedly “transactional” nature of Russian foreign policy, implying that Russia would be willing to do a deal if the price were right, and similar commentaries have appeared in the British press including one written by the former British Foreign Secretary David Owen and another by the Guardian commentator Simon Tisdall. These speculations have been given credence by seeming confirmation of the existence of the talks by a spokesman of the US State Department and by the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Reference is often made to the precedent supposedly provided by Yemen where behind the scenes pressure by foreign powers, in this case the United States and Saudi Arabia, led to the removal from power of Yemen’s longstanding leader President Saleh. Occasional comments by various Russian officials including the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov but also by Russia’s ruling tandem of Medvedev and Putin that Russia does not support Assad are seized on for example by the British Prime Minister David Cameron at the G20 summit in Mexico as evidence of Russia’s willingness to explore this option.
All this has gone on hand in hand with a continuous drumbeat of angry criticism of Russia because of its support for the Syrian government. This often takes the form of a rhetorical question of “how many Syrians have to die” before Russia is prepared to abandon Assad? This criticism happens alongside press and letter writing campaigns including two recently organised by Amnesty International to press Russia to change its stand on Syria in the Security Council and to stop its arms sales to Syria.
When all this criticism and all this pressure and all the talks, secret or otherwise, fail to achieve their objective, which is to get Russia to change its policy on Syria, this is explained by a variety of reasons which invariably explain Russian policy in very cynical terms. Common explanations for Russia’s Syrian policy that I have read include the following:
1. The supposed importance to Russia of its relationship with Syria and of its naval base in Tartus. Reference is sometimes made to Syria being Russia’s “last ally” or “only ally” or “only remaining ally” in the Arab world and to Tartus being Russia’s “only” naval base in the Mediterranean;
2. The supposed profit to Russia from its arms sales to Syria;
3. Russian anger with the west because of the way Russia was tricked by the west over Libya;
4. A desire by Russia and by Vladimir Putin in particular to reassert Russia as a Great Power by thwarting the west in the Middle East and by showing that Russia is a force to be reckoned with;
5. Some sort of dictators’ pact of solidarity between Russia and the Syrian dictatorship. This often goes together with a claim that the Russian government is supposedly worried that if Assad falls the “democracy virus” will spread to Russia;
6. A supposed Russian belief in a doctrine of unlimited state sovereignty whereby governments supposedly have a right to behave as badly as they wish provided they do so within the borders of their own countries.
An invariable feature of this commentary is that it takes the benevolence of western intentions for granted. Indeed one occasionally comes across expressions of frustration that Russia because of the cynicism of its outlook is unable to see or understand this. One also often comes across claims that by sticking to its policy Russia is supposedly acting contrary to its own interests because it is supposedly jeopardising its good relations with the other Arab states and is jeopardising its interests in Syria by backing Assad whose fall is said to be inevitable.
All this commentary is wrong and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Russian policy. I had assumed until recently that despite all the rhetoric the true motives behind Russian policy were actually well understood. Following the recent meeting between Obama and Putin at the G20 summit in Mexico I am not so sure. I have therefore decided to reopen my blog to explain what Russian policy is. In doing so I am not expressing an opinion about Russian policy. Russian policy has been explained repeatedly by Russian diplomats and spokesmen and by senior members of the Russian government including Putin, Medvedev and Lavrov. All I am doing in this post is providing a summary of what they say and giving the context for it.
The first point to make is that though all the focus is on Russia Chinese policy with respect to Syria is in all respects identical to Russia’s. There is no obvious explanation of why Russia comes in for so much more criticism for its Syrian policy than does China given that Russian and Chinese policy on Syria is the same. I have heard various explanations, for example that western policy is to try to split China from Russia or that Russia gets more criticism because it is seen as somehow weaker or because Russia is believed to have more influence in Syria than does China. In my opinion the true reason is that hostility towards Russia is always much greater in the west than is hostility towards China making criticism of Russia easier and somehow more natural for the west than criticism of China. As this is all speculative and as this post is about Russian policy I do not propose to discuss this point further.
The key to understanding Russian policy is to look at what has happened in international relations since the end of the Cold War. If one does then it becomes clear that a small group of states, namely the United States and Britain but also occasionally France and some other US allies (but significantly not Germany) have appropriated to themselves a licence to overthrow governments of which they disapprove. They do this through a variety of ways such as by funding and supporting opposition movements and parties (called “democracy promotion”) as happened in Yugoslavia in 2000, by arming rebels as happened in Libya last year and in Syria this year and ultimately by launching military attacks and even invasions of the various states whose governments they want to overthrow. Examples include Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011.
Armed attacks or invasions of countries to overthrow their governments have of course been a feature of international relations since the beginning of history. What is unique about the present is that the United States and its allies have come to think of this licence they have given themelves to overthrow governments as a right they supposedly possess. It is a right they limit to themselves and which they claim on the basis of their supposedly superior democratic virtue as western democracies. Occasionally this right is even claimed to be a “duty” to overthrow governments which the United States and other western powers say misbehave. The policy arising from the exercise of this supposed right or duty is sometimes referred to as “liberal” or even “humanitarian” interventionism.
This right is not consistent with international law, which has traditionally considered an armed attack upon a state to overthrow its government to be a war of aggression. This was defined in 1945 as a crime against peace by the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal whose principles are embodied in the United Nations Charter. Specifically the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal says that “the planning, preparation, initiation and waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances” is a crime against peace (italics added).
In order to get round this difficulty the United States and its allies have sought to use the authority of the Security Council of the United Nations to legitimise their wars of aggression. The relevant authority is provided by Article 39 of the United Nations Charter, which says that “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken…..to maintain or restore international peace and security” (italics added).
Though the right to overthrow governments is now taken for granted by the governments of the United States and of Britain and is even passionately believed in by some of their members its existence is emphatically rejected by other governments in particular those of Russia and China. These two countries and many others see in it a threat to the political independence of states including ultimately their own.
Russia’s and China’s stance is well founded in international law. Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter says that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state…”(italics added). In its definition of aggression the International Law Commission on 4th June 1954 said that aggression is “….the use of force by a State or Government against any other State or Government, in any manner, whatever the weapons used and whether openly or otherwise, for any reason or for any purpose other than individual or collective self defence or in pursuance of a decision or recommendation by a competent organ of the United Nations” (italics added). Resolution 3314 of the UN General Assembly further defined aggression as “armed invasions or attacks, bombardments, blockades, armed violations of territory, permitting other states to use one’s own territory to perpetrate acts of aggression and the employment of armed irregulars or mercenaries to carry out acts of aggression”. If such aggression is pursued with sustained intent it becomes a war of aggression, which the London Charter of the Military Tribunal said was a crime against peace.
In other words waging war on a state to overthrow its government except for the purpose of self defence and without the authorisation of the Security Council is a war of aggression, which is a crime against peace.
Russia’s and China’s objections would be of no significance were it not for the fact that they are powerful countries that are also veto wielding members of the Security Council. This puts them in a position to deny the United States and its allies the authority of the Security Council in such cases where the United States and its allies wish to use force to overthrow governments of which they disapprove. This has led to a succession of bitter conflicts in the Security Council between the US and its allies and Russia and China. This happened for example in 1998 in connection with the US aerial bombing of Iraq (“Operation Desert Fox”), in 1998 and 1999 in connection with the NATO attack on Yugoslavia and most famously in 2002 and 2003 over the US led invasion of Iraq. It almost happened last year in relation to the western attack on Libya. It has also happened on numerous other less well known occasions in connection with western attempts to obtain Security Council authorisation for action against the governments of various other countries including Iran, North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan. The conflict between the United States and Russia and China over Syria is merely the latest in this sequence.
It has been apparent for many months and certainly since the Security Council discussions in October 2011 that the western objective is to overthrow the government of Syria. The purpose of the draft Resolutions the western powers proposed to the Security Council in October 2011 and February 2012 was to pave the way for military action by the western powers to overthrow the Syrian government. As I discussed in a lengthy post I wrote at the time of the debate on the first Resolution in October 2011 and as was equally true of the Resolution proposed in February 2012, both Resolutions were drafted with the purpose of eventually authorising military action. In recent months western governments have openly demanded the resignation of President Assad and this was also the demand of the Arab League whose leading members, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, are allied to the United States and the west.
Russian and Chinese opposition to this demand does not come from any strong Russian or Chinese desire to preserve in power President Assad and his government. It comes from their fundamental disagreement with the right the United States and its allies claim for themselves to overthrow governments including the government of President Assad. As Russian and Chinese officials and leaders put it, it is not for the United States or its allies or any other outsiders to decide whether President Assad goes or stays since that is a decision which should only be made in Syria by Syrians.
Russia and China have overwhelmingly strong reasons for taking this stand. Firstly the right the United States and its allies claim for themselves represents an extraordinary and extremely dangerous departure from international law as this has been applied and understood since the end of the Second World War. Secondly it privileges a small group of very powerful states over all the others. Moreover and significantly it is a group from which Russia and China are excluded. Thirdly it is a right that is very obviously targeted against Russia and China, It has not escaped Russia’s and China’s attention even if it has escaped the attention of most people in the west that the governments the western powers target for overthrow are invariably governments that are allies or friends of Russia and China. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, as two countries which have suffered heavily from western aggression in the last two hundred years Russia and China will never agree to any modification of international law that might allow or legitimise it.
Russian and Chinese spokesmen have repeatedly gone out of their way to make the stand of their two countries clear. Their comments are either ignored or misunderstood. Thus when Russian or Chinese leaders explain, as they often do, that they do not support Assad and that the decision as to who should lead Syria is a matter for Syrians, this is not seen for what it is, a simple restatement of Russia’s and China’s position, but is instead interpreted as a sign that Russian or Chinese support for Assad is “weakening” and/or is in the process of being withdrawn.
Behind all this there seems to be an assumption that Russian and Chinese policy is somehow not for real and that the Russians and the Chinese do not really mean what they say. It appears to be taken for granted that Russia especially conducts its foreign policy in a totally cynical or (to use the now fashionable term) “transactional” way. This gives rise to the repeated, and repeatedly disappointed, assumption that Russia can be bribed or bullied or embarrassed or persuaded into changing its mind. Thus Blair thought he could persuade Russia to support a second Security Council Resolution authorising the US led invasion of Iraq, Gordon Brown thought he had persuaded Medvedev to agree to a Security Council Resolution that would have paved the way for the eventual overthrow of the government of Zimbabwe and Sarkozy made the same mistake in trying to get past Russia and China a Security Council Resolution targeting the military regime in Burma.
Once the true reason for Russia’s policy towards Syria is understood the mistaken nature of the explanations commonly given for it becomes clear. Russia does have longstanding relations with Syria and does have a small naval base there. However Russia ceased to be actively involved in the Middle East in the 1970s and no longer has significant interests in the region and to think of Syria as a key strategic ally or partner of Russia’s is farfetched. As Russian spokesmen have correctly pointed out, Syria’s political and commercial relations in recent years have been far closer to western Europe than they have been to Russia. As for the naval base at Tartus, the Mediterranean has been an American lake since the Second World War and to suppose that Russia with its comparatively small navy could hope to challenge the US in this region from its little base at Tartus is beyond farfetched. The base at Tartus is in fact an inheritance from the Cold War, which until recently had been allowed to deteriorate from neglect. To see it as an important strategic asset for Russia is absurd. Russian arms sales to Syria have never amounted to more than 10% of total Russian arms sales in any one year. Arms sales anyway today account for only a small fraction of Russia’s total trade. That Russia would put its relations with the United States, western Europe and the Arab Gulf states under strain because of fear of losing profits from its arms sales to Syria is absurd. Nor does Russia need to use Syria to assert itself as a Great Power because (notwithstanding what some people in the west want to think) it is one. As for the claim that the Russian government fears that the Russian people might become infected by a “democracy virus” if Assad were to fall, it betrays a fundamental failure to understand Russia on the part of those who make it. This claim is anyway refuted by the fact that the Russian government’s policy towards Syria is broadly supported within Russia even by the Russian government’s opponents. Even the so called “democratic” or “non system” opposition which is behind the recent street protests does not publicly criticise it, which is a sure sign that it enjoys popular support. As for the claim that Russia believes in some doctrine of unlimited sovereignty whereby governments supposedly have an unrestrained licence to do whatever they want on their own territory, nothing Russia has ever said or done gives weight to such a claim. Only last year Russia allowed Resolutions to pass the Security Council whose purpose was to protect civilians caught up in the Libyan civil war who were supposedly being threatened by their government. Russia has repeatedly criticised the Syrian government for disproportionate use of force and for the violent actions it has taken to suppress peaceful protests. Russia has also used its influence to press the Syrian government to carry out democratic reforms and to enter into dialogue with the opposition. Even if this is all dismissed as window dressing it hardly speaks of a belief in some doctrine of unlimited sovereignty.
Since Russia’s Syrian policy is based on fundamental principles that govern Russia’s whole approach to international relations and which Russia obviously sees as of vital importance and part of its national interests it follows that the widespread western assumption that Russia can be bribed or bought or bullied into changing its Syrian policy is misplaced. Claims of secret talks between the United States and Russia to engineer Assad’s removal along the lines of what was done in Yemen are certainly wrong and have been angrily denied by Russian spokesmen. Offers to guarantee Russia’s continued retention of its naval base at Tartus and its wider interests in Syria are similarly wide off the mark. As it happens even if these assets were as important to Russia as is alleged, which they are not, and even if Russia were as cynical as it is made out to be, Russia would still have no interest in such guarantees since past experience shows that such guarantees are worthless.
The last point brings me to the important question of trust. Whether western leaders are prepared to admit the fact or not the fact is that trust between Russia and the west has been on a downward spiral since the end of the Cold War and after what happened in Libya last year such trust between Russia and the west as still existed in the Security Council has entirely disappeared. Russia allowed last year two Resolutions to pass the Security Council, which were intended to protect civilians in Libya by establishing a no fly zone and an arms embargo. The western powers used these Resolutions as cover for their campaign to overthrow by force the Libyan government, something which the Resolutions never authorised. In the process the western powers breached the terms of the Resolutions in the most egregious way by supplying arms to the rebels in Libya, by deploying troops and mercenaries in Libya, by conducting a widespread bombing campaign in Libya (though the Resolutions merely authorised a no fly zone) and by preventing talks between the Libyan government and the rebels even though the Resolutions specifically required such talks and even though the Libyan government had expressly agreed to them.
Not surprisingly after such an experience Russia is no longer prepared to agree to more such Resolutions. This is not because of some childish sulk. Rather it is an inevitable consequence of the collapse of trust, which is bound to happen when Security Council Resolutions are misused in this way. It can only add insult to injury that the western powers are apparently so little embarrassed by the fact that they breached the Resolutions that they can scarcely be bothered to deny the fact or even attempt to excuse or justify what they did.
The result is that it has now become extremely difficult to pass through the Security Council even Resolutions which on the face of it might improve the situation in Syria. For example it is now very difficult to see Russia agreeing to a Security Council Resolution that imposed an arms embargo on Syria. Libya shows only too clearly what would happen if such a Resolution imposing an arms embargo were ever agreed. The western powers would use the mandate they would say the Resolution had given them to impose a blockade of Syria’s borders and coast. At the same time they would step up their supply of arms to the rebels. The events in Libya (and previously in Yugoslavia) show that the fact that an arms embargo would prohibit this would in no way stop them. A Security Council Resolution imposing an arms embargo on Syria would therefore cause the flow of arms to Syria to increase with the rebels being armed but not the government.
Given that Russian and Chinese leaders and spokesmen have been very clear in explaining the position of their countries on the Syrian crisis and the reasons for it I assumed until a few days ago that in reality this position is well understood in the west and that most of the false and misleading commentary that one reads is simply the product of the usual ill informed journalism spiced up with a certain amount of propaganda. The events at the G20 summit make me less sure.
The stories that have appeared in the international media about the Russian sale of helicopters to Syria and about Russian ships and troops being sent to Syria and about Russia engaging in secret talks about Syria and about a possible Yemen variant being prepared for Syria look to me like softening up exercises prior to Putin’s meetings with Obama and Cameron at the G20 summit. Reading between the lines of the joint US Russian statement issued by Obama and Putin following their talks and reading also some of the more excited commentary that has appeared in the British press following Cameron’s meeting with Putin (obviously provided to the press by members of Cameron’s entourage) it seems Obama and Cameron presented Putin with proposals for a solution to the Syrian crisis. These were obviously made on the assumption of the “transactional” nature of Russian foreign policy. These proposals were the highly trailed deal whereby Russia persuades Assad to stand down as part of some sort of Yemen style settlement in return for US and British guarantees to Russia to respect Russian interests in Syria and its naval base there.
To Obama’s anger and to Cameron’s bewilderment Putin said no. Journalists noticed the grim body language and suppressed anger at Obama’s and Putin’s joint press conference. Whilst Syria will have been only one of the many subjects of their discussion (which lasted an extraordinary two hours) it is clear that it was amongst the most contentious. Latest reports from Russia even suggest that the discussion on Syria took up a third of the whole meeting, which would mean that it must have gone on for an astonishing forty minutes. Cameron, who seems genuinely committed to an improvement of relations with Russia, appears for his part to have misconstrued Putin’s confirmation that Russia’s policy is not to support Assad. As I have said and as the Russian Foreign Ministry has since the meeting with Cameron been at pains to point out, this is simply a restatement of what has been Russian policy all along. Cameron however made the usual western mistake of seeing this comment as a sign that Russian support for Assad is weakening. This interpretation was the one given by Cameron’s officials to the British press provoking an angry response from Lavrov, who went on Russian radio to deny it.
I do not understand why Russian policy towards Syria is so difficult to understand. Doubtless the US and Britain find it difficult to take no for an answer. Deep down however I suspect western leaders and diplomats cannot bring themselves to believe that governments like those of Russia and China have a deeper commitment to international law than they do.
None of this of course means that an attack on Syria is ruled out. The Yugoslav bombing war of 1999 and the Iraq invasion of 2003 show that the United States and its allies are in the end prepared to act without Security Council authorisation if the desire to do so is strong enough. Doing so would of course be illegal but that has not prevented them from taking such action in the past and there is no reason to think it will prevent them from taking similar action in the future. The Russians and Chinese as realists understand this very well. However what the Russians and the Chinese can do is ensure that when that action is taken it is taken without the authorisation of the Security Council. They will not then have countenanced it and the action will still be illegal. For the Russians and the Chinese that matters more than preventing the action itself.