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  A British insurer has now withdrawn insurance cover to a Russian ship (referred to by officials as “the ship of death”) that is supposedly transporting helicopter gunships to Syria.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 have to do this.  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… 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.

54 thoughts on “RUSSIA, SYRIA AND THE WEST

  1. If one were to read no other material on the standoff between the west and Russia over Syria than this post, that reader would come away better informed than 90% of those who have followed the situation from the outset. Very well done, Alex.

    I can’t honestly see Cameron as “bewildered” that Putin was not ready to sail on the Good Ship Putsch, though – I believe he went there with the intention of saying Putin was on board no matter what he heard. This is all of a piece with the staged fall of Tripoli broadcast by the western press, intended as a series of sharp shocks to the target to induce despair and convince the subject that the sands are running out. It largely worked against Gaddafi’s forces, convincing them the situation was hopeless and that they should flee for their lives. If Assad thought he had been abandoned by Russia, he might well fold up, although he seems to be made of sterner stuff than that, and it’s plain the west expected him to have collapsed long since. The frustration at not being able to take direct action under the gilded imprimatur of the Security Council must be great.

    Here’s an off-the-wall thought: how is the west going to treat Assad and his wife if the continued efforts to shift him continue to fail, and he remains in power as Syria’s legitimate leader – which he is? The press has had a high old time portraying them both as vampires and pariahs: what’s that press going to do if the Assads survive this? Pretend it never happened, no hard feelings? The situation speaks to the west’s unpreparedness to lose, and each step so far has been taken with the atmosphere of inevitability although the outcome is by no means certain.

    Odd indeed to see Russia and China as the last grim defenders of international law – funny old world, innit?

    • “Odd indeed to see Russia and China as the last grim defenders of international law.”

      Not odd at all. It has been clear for thirty years that US policy has been to destroy the post-WWII peace settlement, and the entire structure of international law that was built to support it. Before that, Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy grumbled at being contained by the USSR, and infringed at the margins when they thought they could get away with it (Iran in the 1950s, etc.), they did not openly defy that structure of international law.

      Then came Reagan…

      Fortunately, the economic foundations of Anglosphere military power are crumbling before our eyes. If the AFPE&P can be prevented from unleashing a world war to restore their lost “unipolar moment” then we will probably get through this okay.

      But the next few years, before Anglosphere military power erodes, will be dangerous.

    • Superative blog, @alexander, and lots of excellent points, @mark.
      (1) To Mark’s point about Western psy ops trying to create a sense of fait accompli, as they did in Libya: part of this campaign is to induce Syrian defectors from government and military. This also follows the Libya scenario, in which America/France induced several high-level people to defect and help form the puppet “regime in exile” aka the NTC. This process has not been as successful with Syrians, although I did read yesterday that they induced one fighter-pilot to defect to Turkey, and they are trying to egg on more of this nature. The more people they can pay to defect, the more impression it creates of a regime hopelessly collapsing, thus even more rats will flee the sinking ship, etc.
      (2) To Mark’s point about awkwardness of international dinner parties after the fact (if Assad survives), well, they already have this problem to deal with, in Putin. For months Putin was demonized by these very same people (Obama, Cameron, etc.) as a murderer and crook, then he came to power anyway, despite all their attempts, and now they have to sit down behind the same table and eat fresh organic farmed salmon with him for starters, followed by shoulder of lamb with mint sauce and gravy….. AWKWARD!
      How do I know it was salmon and lamb?
      Here is link to G20 menu (doesn’t say what they had to drink, though, I am guessing a fine red wine?)

    • Dear Mark,

      Thanks again for your kind words.

      As to Cameron being bewildered, I am afraid that is exactly the impression I got.

      It is impossible for an outsider to get a feel for the total amateurism of this government and of its Blairite predecessor, something which I have previously discussed on your own blog. Cameron like Blair is a politician with no background or experience in foreign policy who has succeeded in British politics largely on the strength of his charm. This success makes Cameron like Blair before him supremely overconfident of what he can achieve through personal meetings. Cameron gives himself the credit for talking Medvedev into agreeing to the two Resolutions last year that paved the way for the war against Libya and I have little doubt that he thought he could do the same with Putin once he had “explained” to Putin how it would be to Russia’s advantage. The fact that he apparently took personal charge of the Alaed affair and seemingly genuinely thought that he had stopped her travelling to Syria and that this would impress Putin says it all.

      All the indications are that Cameron went to the G20 summit sure that he would be able to talk Putin round. When this predictably failed to happen he came away bewildered and tried to put the best spin on it by pretending that Putin had somehow confirmed that Russia has “withdrawn its support from Assad” when as I said in my post Putin actually said nothing new and no such thing.

      • Cameron like Blair is a politician with no background or experience in foreign policy who has succeeded in British politics largely on the strength of his charm.
        Reading this, it struck me: the similarity with Barack Obama. Despite all the obvious differences in social class, ethnicity, economic background, and so on, the similarity is that Obama also succeeded (and even talked his way into the highest office) based mainly on his personal charm. I don’t deny Obama’s academic accomplishments and intelligence (both higher than Cameron’s), but still, both men essentially skated through life finding they could get pretty much anything they wanted via inter-personal skills, smooth-talking and charm. As a result, they both ended up in jobs that were substantially above what their actual abilities and experience warranted, if they had to go through a true vetting process.
        Like Cameron, Obama thought he could charm Putin into betraying Syria. Armed with a series of false debating points (carrots + sticks) supplied to him by an equally inept Hillary Cinton (and Michael McFaul), Obama plied his sorry wares for 40 minutes on a bored and unimpressed Putin. At the end of this pointless exercise, Obama’s failure was obvious to everyone. Having nothing else in his arsenal, he resorted to sulking. “What? My fantastic smile did not charm the pants off this inscrutable Russian? Fine! Be that way!”
        My prediction that Obama will lose to Romney is looking increasingly likely, for a whole series of reasons, both domestic and foreign. Will a President Romney will be able to forge a better relationship with Putin? Dubious. For starters, recent revelations have shown that Romney bears the psychological profile, since earliest youth, of an inveterate bully. (For instance, that instance in his teenage years when he organized group bullying and hazing of a gay boy in his posh boarding school, even attacking the kid with a pair of scissors. People say “boys will be boys”, but not all boys lead mobs, and when reminded of the incident recently, Romney only chuckled fondly at the recollection, instead of hanging his head in shame.)
        Given this psychological profile, Romney is more than likely to resort to violence and war whenever his desires are thrwarted on the international arena. Hence, he is likely to wage war against Syria, Iran, and even go after Russia if he feels he can.

      • Dear Yalensis,

        I never thought of the similarity between Obama and Cameron but you are of course absolutely right. It would also explain why they apparently get on so well with each other. Birds of a feather flock together.

  2. Excellent reading. Thank you.

    “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.”

    This is because Anglosphere leaders, relying on seapower, cannot imagine themselves being on the receiving end of a devastating military attack. Russian and Chinese leaders on the other hand, having experience of invasion by maritime powers, can see the possibilities all too clearly.

    Now, with Chinese naval power growing, and air defenses strengthening, their fears will decline, but that time is not yet here. The Anglosphere still spends more on their armed forces than the rest of the world combined. The PLA-N can still be Copenhagened/Port Arthured/Tarantoed.

    I suspect that will be one of the Anglosphere’s first moves in the coming wars for energy.

    • Dear RKKA,

      Neither Russia nor China have of course ever threatened the US or Britain with invasion though it tends to get forgotten that Britain has invaded Russia twice (in 1854 and 1918) and the US once (in 1918).

      I agree with you that the sense of immunity from invasion together with a period of economic dominance that has now lasted two hundred years (but which may be drawing to an end) largely explains US and British self confidence.

  3. Dear Alex,

    Thanks very much for an excellent post. You explain everything so clearly and so well.

    I’ve read in other news now that the helicopter gunships that Hillary Clinton claimed that Russia was supplying to Syria were Soviet-era vehicles that Syria had bought years ago and had returned to Russia for repairs. They’ve been transported back to Syria in pieces and it will take the Syrians months to put them back together.

    I’m sure Western pressure on the Assads to leave Syria will intensify and if they don’t, NATO will invade the country. There are many articles in alternative news media online that indicate a NATO invasion of Syria will be a prelude to an invasion of Iran and I don’t see Obama during this election year passing up the chance to “do something” and bolster his re-election hopes.

    Curious that at the same time that Clinton lied about the helicopter gunships, the US government has come under fire for supplying over 1,600 guns to Mexican drug cartels in 2010 as part of a bizarre investigation called Operation Fast and Furious to track where the guns go. Two of these weapons ended up killing a US border patrol agent and the Justice Department tried to cover up the murder. This coincidence more or less follows the model that Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman predicted in their book “Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media” in which the US and other Western countries deflect criticism from their actions by blaming other countries for supposedly doing the same thing.

    Like Mark Chapman, I never thought I’d see the day when Russia and China defend the rule of international law, the US, the UK and France revealed as criminal states and other countries like Australia and Canada blindly following the crooks.

    • @Jennifer: Thanks for explaining that “fast and furious” thing. I was trying to follow that story, but could not for the life of me figure out what it was about.
      So, Obama admin guilty of big criminal cover-up?

      • …and I second that Jennifer. Like Yalensis I too had not been able to make sense of the story until you explained it.

        @ Yalensis, I agree with you about the psyops activity. Further evidence to my mind that an attack on Syria is coming. So far it has been much less successful than it was when it targeted Gaddafi. It seems that the Assad regime (like Saddam Hussein’s before) is much more disciplined than Gaddafi’s. It is important however to remember that the defections from Gaddafi’s regime did not in the end undermine it. He would surely have won the civil war and done so quickly despite the defections if NATO had not attacked him.

      • Hi Yalensis, Alex,

        Sorry for the late reply but I got absorbed in that North Korea HBD post over on AK’s blog. Yes, F+F looks like a huge criminal cover-up, not least because the idea of “walking” the guns from point-of-sale to the end user (presumably the big shots in the hierarchies of Mexican drug cartels) was intended to break the cartels’ power and lead to massive arrests but instead most guns got lost and the cartels were unaffected. In addition several hundred people in Mexico were killed with these guns and the scandal has badly affected US-Mexico diplomatic relations. Mexico is already hesitant about following any further harebrained US initiatives on the War on Drugs.

        Following one gun through several pairs of hands, probably hundreds of pairs, would be hard enough but to track 1,600 – 2,500 guns? If the feds didn’t have a super enough computer, no wonder they lost so many!

        The depressing thing about Operation Fast and Furious is that it reminds me of the crack wars in the US during the 1980s. The CIA put crack on the streets in poor sections of cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington to raise money to supply weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua. It’s as if the one thing the US govt learns from its mistakes is to keep repeating them in a different form.

    • Dear Jennifer,

      I am afraid I share your pessimism. I think attacks on Syria and Iran are only a matter of time. Suffice to say I cannot think of a single occasion in the last twenty years when a war the west has threatened has not eventually taken place.

      For the rest as a child of the Cold War I too find it strange to see Russia and China as the grim defenders of international law. “Grim” says it exactly since as the record shows they are continuously on the defensive against an increasingly restless superpower that has convinced itself that it has right on its side.

      What makes this especially bitter for someone like me who takes an interest in the history of international relations is that international law as we now know it is largely a US creation. To be precise it is the creation of a generation of brilliant US jurists who lived and worked before the Second World War and whose work culminated in the setting up of the Nuremberg Tribunal to try the Nazi war criminals and its charter and in the drafting of the UN Charter. What more eloquent words are there than those of Robert H. Jackson, the US Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal who said that “To initiate a war of aggression,… not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”?

      • Alexander,

        This destruction of US-created international law is precisely what I was referring to above. Once the Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy decided to destroy “The Peace of Yalta” they embarked on a path that destroyed the structure of international law that was built to support “The Peace of Yalta” as well.

        And yes, that legal structure was indeed largely a US creation.

      • Dear Jennifer,

        This whole business of gun running to Mexican drugs cartels by an agency of the US government looks utterly crackers. I have to say even the title “Operation Fast and Furious”, presumably taken from the films, is bizarre. It shows how detached from reality some people in Washington have become.

        A basic question about this extraordinary affair is did anybody bother to obtain the President’s permission before running this sort of operation? In any normal country with a properly functioning government an agency that sought to smuggle arms to violent criminals on this scale would have had to have obtained the agreement of the head of the government before proceeding even if this was all being done as part of some sort of trap to catch the criminals. I presume by the way that the short answer to this question is no, which shows just how completely dysfunctional the US government has become. If of course the answer is yes then in any normal country this would surely be a resigning or even an impeachment matter given that the lives of US citizens were being put at risk by the actions of a President whose constitutional duty it is to protect them. One way or the other it is really remarkable that so far as I can see this question has not even been asked.

  4. Nice article. I think that things in 2012 are much different than in 2003 and 1999. Back then there was no negotiation with Russia, just a coalition of the willing (aka billing) like some lynch mob organized by the US. For some reason the “hyperpower” west is not so brave now. In my view part of this is external to Russia, namely the failure of the war on Iraq (no oil gushing forth and pro-Iran Shi’ites in charge) and the grotesque farce that is Libya (an Al Qaeda den). But it is also due to internal Russian processes. Russia is in much better shape militarily and economically in 2012 compared to 2003 and especially to early 1999 when it was at its nadir. Meanwhile the mighty west if teetering on the edge of bank runs and financial collapse.

    If some coalition of the billing is dispatched to Syria to impose the west’s new order, Russia should actively sabotage western economies. Reducing oil exports by 3 million barrels per day in concert with Iran will pretty much create gas lines in North America and Europe. In spite of all the happy talk about hypothetical reserves and dropping oil prices, there is no slack in the global system. Production has been stalled since 2006 at the same time as the economies of China, India and the rest of the developing world advance and suck up more of the vital oil resource. The US is using 3 million barrels per day less today than in 2007. This is not a sign of progress but of weakness. The automobile fleet in the US has not experienced a boom in efficiency since 2007 (in fact it is opposite due to SUVs) and the only reason for the decline is economic contraction. The unemployment in the US is still at 80% it was in 2009 and this has been the slowest job recovery since WWII.

    The trick is to reduce exports of Russian crude for more than a year. No short term supply reduction will matter.

    • Dear Kirill,

      Thank you for your comments.

      I don’t think that Russia and China will actively try to stop a US attack on Syria. Nor do I see them jeopardising their commercial relations by cutting oil exports. What Russia and China have however and what the US lacks is the virtue of patience. They know even if the US doesn’t that these adventures always end badly and that with the shift in the balance of world economic power time is on their side.

      I recently read a fascinating piece in the British magazine the New Statesman by a British journalist who had visited the US’s top military logistics college where he found the staff becoming increasingly depressed and concerned and giving warnings to the US government and the Pentagon that the US has at most only around 9 years to sort itself out before its ability to control events disappears completely. These people, who are of course serving officers in the US military and therefore by definition deeply patriotic Americans and probably Republicans, were calling for urgent cuts in the US defence budget, the closure of US overseas bases, an end to foreign wars and a massive re direction of investment to regenerate the US science and infrastructure base. What chance do you see of any of that happening?

      • If Russia sits by and does nothing then it will be facilitating its own problems next. The west can’t embargo Russia. Russian oil will be bought regardless of anglosphere theatrics. Russia does not depend on manufacturing exports like Germany and Japan so it cannot be blackmailed with the loss of markets.

        The leadership of the west is in a total state of delusion. On the cusp of their collapse they think that they are about to establish the 1000 year Reich. Anything that serves to burst their bubble is of paramount importance and should be deployed as soon as possible. Russia should also punish the west for smearing it with outright lies.

      • Good points Alex, BUT I agree with Krill when he says Russia can’t afford to sit and do nothing—they’ve been doing this for 20 years already. They actually have a few options which carry risk, but imho, will still avoid all out war:

        -If the US/NATO bypasses the security council again to start another major war in the middle East, the Chinese and Russians MUST put their feet down – not for the sake of Assad, but so they we can salvage what remains of international law in this world. If Russia or China agreed to TEMPORARILY supply Syria with advanced air defenses (the S-300 and POSSIBLY the new S-400 manned/trained by Russian crews who know how to use them) to shoot down modern US/NATO fighters, this would go a long way in sending a message. No bully likes a bloody nose, and the Americans are far to accustomed to fighting one-sided conflicts where their opponenst are incapable of fighting back. The Russians and Chinese can level the playing field. I really don’t think the American public today has much of a stomach for warfare unless they’re “winning.”

        -China and Russia could place Iran and Syria under a nuclear umbrella, so unless the US/NATO leaders are insane, this would certainly deter an attack of any sort on these two countries. The only thing that worries me about this option is Israel. I truly believe that Bibi and the Likud party might be crazy enough to try it anyway (attack Iran), which is why the US would then be forced to SERIOUSLY reign Israel in and force them to make peace with their neighbors and drop the belligerence towards Iran. The Russians and Chinese could take charge of the tiresome “nuclear issue” and insure that Iran is only producing nuclear energy. I’m sick of this “Iran nuclear issue” so this alone would make this scenario worth it to me. At the very least, the IAEA could go back to being a real nuclear watchdog group rather than a tool of US foreign policy.

        If the Chinese and Russians continue to sit by and do nothing, they will find themselves cut off and encricled. This is the endgame. It’s time for them to back up their great power status or risk losing it. Another attack on a sovereign country with the Chinese and Russians sitting around twisting their thumbs, will render the security council irrelevant. If we are to use the Georgia war of 2008 as an example, the west will certainly spit venom for carrying out the above, but in the end, they really can’t do much aboout it short of starting a nuclear war – which if they’re rational, they’ll conclude that Syria and Iran just aren’t worth it. Keep in mind that it will have been the US/NATO that will have brought the world to this point with their reckless disregard for law.

  5. According to Russian news sources, the “Alaed” has entered the port at Murmansk, flying the Curacao flag. Russian officials say the Curacao flag will be replaced by the flag of the Russian Federation, under which the “Alaed” will sail to Syria, escorted by another vessel.

    • I hope it gets a missile cruiser escort so that if anyone tries something smart they will be at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

      • Dear Kirill,

        I am sure the Alaed will get a naval escort in which case the result of Cameron’s inept manoeuvre will be to get more Russian warships to go to Syria.

        I am not saying that Russia will do nothing. Firstly it is important to remember that because of the naval base at Tartus there already are Russian military personnel in Syria. That in itself is going to complicate any US or western planning for an air campaign. Secondly, if there is an attack on Syria there will be an international outcry with Russia, China and Iran at its centre. International tensions will rise and oil prices will increase regardless of whether there is an actual embargo or not.

        I agree with you that US policy is delusional. That is what makes it dangerous.

  6. Dear Alexander: I agree with your point about Libya: None of those expensive Western efforts (the psy ops, the phony Al Jazeera pieces, the defections, the propaganda war, etc. etc.) was really necessary or even worth the money spent on it. All of that was just the proverbial mountain laboring to give birth to a mouse. With all of that, Gaddafi, even with his miserable army, would have STILL defeated the Al Qaeda ragtags with one hand tied behind his back. It was the BOMBING, and the BOMBING alone, which won the war for NATO and defeated Gaddafi’s army.
    During the course of that war I commented several times on Mark’s blog what I had read in various sources about the deadly effectiveness of the NATO air campaign; how the bombings prevented Gaddafi’s army from being able to regroup and use their superior assets (tanks and artillery and so on) effectively against the NATO mercenaries.
    By the same token, Syria’s fate depends on the ability of her anti-air defenses to shoot down incoming bombers.

    • Dear Yalensis,

      The meeting is taking place in Brussels. So far it is only at NATO ambassadors level. I think it is unlikely to lead immediately to an attack but it could release a statement that might increase the prospects of an attack.

      Notice by the way how Turkey at first admitted its aircraft was in Syrian airspace when it was shot down only inexplicably to change its position and declare that it was in international airspace. I wonder who or what made it change its mind?

      • …And not so surprisingly, none of the mainstream media articles I’ve read over the past 24 hours have even bothered to make note of this obvious change in Turkey’s position. I wonder why? (asking rhetorically)

  7. There were a couple of further developments, as covered in Russian press.
    An item from 21:57 has Syrians firing on (but not bringing down) still another Turkish plane:

    Next an item from 22:45 shows Turks backing down somewhat:
    “We are not planning to go to war with anyone…” announces Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Bulent Arinchi. While still huffily demanding an apology from Syria.

    Maybe cooler heads are prevailing?

  8. Further developments, this headline from Radio Free Europe says it all: NATO stands with Turkey but does not invoke Article 5

    So, at least for now, looks like NATO has blinked in this game of chicken. This confirms my hunch that the downing of the Turkish plane was simply an accident (call it a a random result of Chaos Theory, otherwise known as Murphy’s Law), and not a planned provocation of either side.

    I did get a tad confused between NATO Articles 4 and 5, so I did a quick research on the google.
    Article 4 says an aggrieved country (in this case, Turkey) has the right to call a meeting and summon her allies to discuss the distressing incident:
    The meeting is only the second time in NATO’s 63-year history that member countries have convened under Article 4 of its charter, which provides for consultations when a member state feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under threat.

    Whereas, Article 5 is meatier and more ominous. Invoking Article 5 means: NATO as an organization announces that a member state has been attacked, so better watch out, evil-doers.

    In this particular case, Turkey got a lot of empty words of moral support, but NO Article 5.

    Am I correct in saying that Article 5 was only ever invoked once, and that was when America was attacked on 9/11 2001? Barring any conspiracy theories, that incident truly was a military attack on USA (for example, the flying attack on the Pentagon), and the result was the subsequent NATO invasion of Afghanistan.
    In this case, looks like Rasmussen is not willing to go to war with Syria, at least not yet.
    I predict the war will still take place, but it will be mostly unilateral USA vs. Syria war.

    • You are correct that Article 5 was only invoked once, and on the occasion you suggest. Meanwhile, this article suggests it was considered but rejected because it likely would have met with opposition in some quarters, and passing up the opportunity to punch Syria silly was considered a better option than showcasing divisions within NATO.

      • Dear Yalensis and Mark,

        It looks like you are both right and that there is thankfully not going to be a NATO response.

        It is important to say that NATO is not a monolith. One of its key members, Germany, has been consistently skeptical of US “humanitarian interventionist” adventures and has almost always refused to go along with them. Germany opposed the war in Iraq, refused to become involved in the war against Libya and has made clear its lack of enthusiasm and indeed opposition to a war against Iran. I gather that Germany also made clear in advance of the NATO meeting that it had no wish to see a military confrontation between Turkey and Syria in which it might become involved.

        I should say that German policy is not absolutely consistent. Germany was an enthusiastic supporter of the NATO bombing war against Yugoslavia in 1999. However it had direct interests in that war and as time had passed its skepticism about these adventures has increased.

        Lastly, I understand that popular opinion in Turkey itself is overwhelmingly opposed to the country becoming involved in a war against Syria. Though there doubtless are some people in Turkey who want such a war and though I have no doubt that if a war did take place Turkey would quickly fall into line, the opposition to such a war in Turkey no doubt partly explains the recent caution of the Turkish government.

  9. As I read elsewhere in someone’s comment, Turkey did indeed initially acknowledge their fighter was in Syrian airspace when it was shot down, although they later said it had been over international waters. The most telling bit of information for me – which should be easy to prove if the wreck is raised – was from the Syrians, who say it was shot down not with a missile but with gunfire, a weapon whose range does not exceed 2000 yards. That sounds like a close-in – defense weapon like the American Vulcan-Phalanx, better known as CIWS. The fighter would have had to be awfully close to a military position to be engaged by this weapon and, more importantly, would have had to continue to close because CIWS will not engage a target that does not meet CPA (Closest Point of Approach) criteria. The target must meet speed criteria that usually rules out civil air, and must be closing.

      • Yes, it does sound like the likely scenario, and I mentioned elsewhere that it was probably a probe to test Syrian reaction, perhaps even looking for a weakly-defended corridor in advance of a possible airborne incursion. However, somebody is obviously lying if the plane actually was shot down with light-calibre (20mm – 30mm) air defense gunfire, because the range is indeed around 2000 yards, or one nautical mile. Turkey says the plane was 13 nautical miles from Syria, or 26,000 yds, when it was “attacked”; which is far, far outside the range of light automatic guns – unless the gun was on a ship, and some source or other tried to cover that possibility by suggesting the Russian warship ADMIRAL CHABANENKO shot down the plane.

        It might be better for Turkey if the wreck was never found, but Syria has a powerful motive to keep looking.

  10. Whilst travelling on the train today I noticed a poster on every trainstation I passed: Assad was on the left side with Putin on the right side calling people to sign a petition to “pressure” Russia to end the violence in Syria. Funny, I never saw posters of Sarkozy and Khadaffi or Cameron (or make up another Western leader) and the leader of Bahrain (or Saudi Arabia).

  11. Returning to the diplomatic battle, I understand that the US has said it will only attend the conference on Saturday in Geneva if regime change in Syria is on the agenda. Since the US has now confirmed it will attend the conference this has led to more spin for example in an article in the Financial Times today (I cannot provide a link since it is behind a paywall) to the effect that Russia has supposedly “signed off” to a transition plan that calls for Assad to stand down.

    I have read and found nothing anywhere to suggest that Russia has agreed to or “signed off” to any such thing and it scarcely seems likely that it would just a few days after Putin emphatically ruled such a thing out at the G20 summit in Mexico. The conference in Geneva was convened by Annan to try to mobilise international support for his peace plan, which contains no provision for Assad to stand down. The reason that peace plan is in trouble is because the US and its allies have worked round the clock to undermine it by arming the rebels. Annan’s purpose in calling the Geneva conference seems to be to try to get this supply of arms stopped and to get a simultaneous withdrawal of government troops and rebels from the contested areas so that a ceasefire can take hold and negotiations can take place. The latest leaks show that that is not what the US wants.

      • CBC News went slightly further, saying Moscow “would not endorse a call for Assad to give up power”. It quotes Lavrov as saying, “We are not supporting and will not support any external meddling. External players must not dictate … to Syrians, but, first of all, must commit to influencing all the sides in Syria to stop the violence.”

        I don’t know how much clearer he can make it. But international media, like Lloyd Christmas in “Dumb and Dumber”, keeps hearing what it wants to hear (“…so you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance”). It’s also possible western governments are trying to pressure Russia into taking an ever-stronger stance on Syria that sets them apart from the west, for their own reasons. Interestingly, China’s position is still not mentioned at all.

  12. After all the days of claims and speculations that Russia had “signed off” to a transition plan that called for Assad’s removal, the Geneva conference has ended with the offending words in Annan’s transition plan that the western governments chose to interpret as calling for Assad’s removal deleted at Russian insistence and with Russia’s policy that Assad’s fate was to be decided in Syria by Syrians reaffirmed.

    Notice that the Guardian article for the first time admits that the question is for Russia a “red line”. The article also admits that China gave Russia its support. In fact a largely unreported meeting took place before the Geneva conference in Moscow between the Chinese ambassador to Russia and the Russian deputy foreign minister at which the twoo countries agreed their positions. It was clear to me that the latest attempt to bounce Russia into agreeing to a plan calling for Assad’s removal had failed when Hillary Clinton failed to give a press conference after her meeting on Friday with Lavrov in St. Petersburg.

    I would just wrap up by making two quick points:

    1. I am sure that when he first proposed the words about the transitional government not including individuals who might obstruct peace efforts Assad had not intended anything controversial or significant and had not intended to mean by them that Assad had to go. Had that been Annan’s intention then surely as an experienced diplomat he would have said as much. It was the US’s and Britain’s insistence that these words meant more than they said and that they meant that Assad would have to go that made the Russians and the Chinese determined to remove them.

    2. Though the proposal for a transitional government builds on Annan’s early plan it is not in fact a departure from it. The plan always called for a Syrian led political process that would take into account the Syrian people’s legitimate aspirations. That was surely always intended to lead to the establishment of a new government. Annan’s latest proposal merely makes that objective explicit.

    • For the first time, Clinton concedes that the efforts to unseat Assad may not bear fruit.

      I wouldn’t be too confident that it indicates any relenting, though. It likely just means the USA will have to pursue getting rid of Assad by other means, such as a drone attack on his vehicle or some other means of assassination. The USA does not lose gracefully or give up easily, and an acknowledgement that Russia and China together are strong enough to hold NATO at bay in the diplomatic arena must have been painful. But when the USA publicly sets itself a goal, it doesn’t like failing to achieve it until all means of doing so are exhausted. I wouldn’t rule out satellite photography of the Assad compound in Damascus and some extra encouragement for a select group of “rebels”.

      • Dear Mark,

        I am afraid I agree with you.

        In my opinion the Geneva conference has achieved nothing. The Russians and the Chinese refused to budge from their previous position that the decision about who should run Syria should be left to Syrians. I suspect that they were not entirely happy with Annan’s transitional government plan since from their point of view even that amounts to interference in Syria. What right after all do the participants in the Geneval conference have to say that Syria, which is a sovereign independent country, should have a transitional government different from the government it has now? Logically that is a matter for Syrians themselves to decide after they have negotiated with each other. Bear in mind that there were no Syrians either from the present government or from the opposition present at the conference.

        At the same time the Russians and the Chinese do not want to repudiate Annan, whose peace plan they originally sponsored, especially since they know that Annan’s peace plan is the single most important factor preventing an attack on Syria, which the west would have difficulty justifying whilst a peace plan was in existence. However the proposal for a transitional government has been effectively emasculated by Russian and Chinese insistence that it must be formed on the basis of mutual consent between the warring parties in Syria. That effectively passes the ball back to the Syrians where it belongs.

        Frankly I see no sign of anything like serious negotiations happening at the moment. Certainly negotiations cannot happen whilst the US and its allies Britain and France continue to insist (as they have continued to do in more public statements made by Clinton, Fabius and Hague made since the Geneva conference) that “Assad must go” and that the agreements in Geneva effectively ensure this because there is no possibility that the rebels will ever consent to Assad being part of a new transitional government. This sort of stand makes serious negotiations between the parties impossible. On the one hand it ignores the fact that there are supposed to be two parties to the negotiation each of which is supposed to give its consent. The US and its allies have no right to decide who will negotiate on behalf of the Syrian government or to impose conditions upon the Syrian government as to who will be part of any future Syrian government before negotiations even take place. On the other hand by continuing to demand that Assad must go as a precondition for any agreement to set up a new transitional government the US and its allies take away any incentive for the rebels to negotiate with Assad.

  13. Miriam Elder has written an article in the Guardian, which if one ignores the strong anti Russian bias nonetheless does show the first signs of understanding Russia’s Syrian policy. The reason for this is that for once the article is based on conversations with Russian experts:

    One point Miriam Elder makes in her article with which I take strong issue is her suggestion that Russia has kept its Syrian policy somehow secret. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Russians have missed no opportunity over the last year to explain their Syrian policy and have done so with great consistency and at great length. The trouble has been that no one has been listening.

    More news on this subject:

    1. Lavrov has made clear that Russia has not invited Assad to take refuge in Russia. He has said that the Germans raised this possibility in talks between Merkel and Putin and that the Russians initially thought the suggestion was a joke and said that the Germans should think of offering Assad refuge instead.

    2. Consistent with their policy the Russians and the Chinese have kept away from the latest “Friends of Syria” conference in Paris organised by the US and its friends. Hillary Clinton for her part at the conference let her frustration show when she used somewhat undiplomatic language to call on the other states attending the conference to put pressure on Russia and China to change their Syrian policy because Russia and China have supposedly “not been punished” up to now for their support for Assad. Such comments obviously are not going to go down well in Moscow and Beijing and needless to say there is no possibility of the other states at the conference putting on Moscow and Beijing the sort of pressure that Hillary Clinton wants. Hillary Clinton’s comments may have been provoked by annoyance at the generally successful trip Putin has just made to the Middle East but whether this is the case or not what her comments do show is that the US has no effective means of putting pressure on Moscow and Beijing to change their policy.

    3. Another person who conspicuously kept away from the “Friends of Syria” conference in Paris was Annan who in an interview with the Guardian made some thinkly veiled criticisms of US policy, making clear his displeasure at US efforts to exclude Iran from discussions of the Syrian crisis and at the US’s arming of the rebels and its failure to put pressure on the rebels to enter into negotiations with the Syrian government in accordance with his peace plan.

    • Judging from today’s Guardian editorial it seems that whatever understanding Miriam Elder has obtained of Russia’s Syrian policy that understanding has not yet reached the Guardian’s editorial writer.

      Whilst the editorial finally admits the possibility that Russia’s objections are “fundamental” and are not due to mere cynicism or expediency it makes the extraordinary claim that Russia’s opposition is not to western policy but to popular uprisings in general.

      Russia probably more than any other country knows that popular uprisings are the stuff of history and nothing Russia has said or done during the Syrian crisis gives warrant to the idea that Russia is axiomatically opposed to them. On the contrary as I said in my article the Russians have unequivocally condemned the Syrian government’s use of force against peaceful protesters and have pressed the Syrian government to negotiate with the opposition and to implement reforms – all actions which show that Russia recognises the legitimacy of the protesters’ demands. What Russia strongly objects to as it has repeatedly said and as I discussed in my article is not popular revolution as such but the western policy of overthrowing governments.

  14. The capacity of journalists to read more into comments by Russian officials than they say continues unabated. A few days ago at the Farnborough Air Show an official of the Russian state defence export company made certain comments about Russian arms deliveries to Syria. These have been seized on by some journalists, including some Russian journalists, as evidence of a Russian decision to stop arms supplies to Syria. The Independent is now publishing an editorial to that effect.

    The first thing to say is that these comments were made by a middle ranking official of the Russian state defence export company attending a foreign air show not by a member of the Russian government. If there had been a change of Russian policy it is inconceivable that it would have been announced in such an informal way. Secondly it is quite clear from the official’s comments that he was announcing nothing new and that there has been no change in Russian policy. Russian officials including Lavrov have consistently said that Russia will honour existing contracts but that Russia will not supply arms to Syria that could be used against civilians or in the civil war. The official’s comments do not go beyond that and simply reiterate (again) what is longstanding Russian policy. Certainly these comments do not mean that Russia has “cut Assad off” or that Russia is prepared to agree to a Chapter VII Security Council Resolution imposing an arms embargo on Syria which Russia knows the western powers would merely misuse to impose a blockade on Syria and to arm the rebels. As it happens Syria appears to have no shortage of the sort of weapons it needs to fight its civil war and there is no evidence that Syria has ever asked Russia for more such weapons.

  15. The other evening I cycled past the Russian Embassy, where a crowd of about 50 Syrians were staging a noisy protest. Banners demanded the Russia stop exporting weapons that were killing their brothers and sisters. I wonder what they would make of your detailed and nuanced blog post. The immorality of selling weapons to a regime using them on civilians seems pretty clear cut to me.

    • Dear Rowland,

      I don’t think there is actually anything very nuanced about my article. I was simply explaining what Russian policy is. Here is an article that recently appeared in the Guardian by Jonathan Steele (the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent at the beginning of the 1990s) who explains it in the same way as me.

      On the subject of the immorality of supplying arms, I have no doubt that there are many Syrians in Syria who feel strongly that arms supplies to the Syrian rebels who also often use them against civilians are equally or more immoral. If what one wants is a quick end to the Syrian crisis and an end to the killing of civilians then the way to achieve that is by supporting negotiations held without prior conditions as proposed by Annan, as supported by Russia, as agreed to by the Syrian government but as rejected by the rebels and the west.

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