MOSCOW – After marathon meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry here Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hinted that Moscow may finally pressure Syrian President Bashir Assad to leave office.
“We are not interested in the fate of certain individuals,” Lavrov said at a late-night news conference. “We are interested in the fate of the Syrian people.”
Lavrov and Kerry announced they would host an international conference where Syrian government officials and rebels will be given a chance to name an interim government. The odds of the two sides agreeing are low, but Kerry deserves credit for securing a small diplomatic step forward here.
The problem is that Lavrov and his boss — President Vladimir Putin — may be unable to deliver on Assad. For nearly two years, Lavrov and Putin have served as the Syrian leaders’ chief diplomatic ally, but Iran has provided far more military support. Russian analysts say Washington is kidding itself if it believes Putin can orchestrate a quick and easy Assad exit.
“All of this is wishful thinking,” said Sergei Strokan, a columnist for the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant. “Moscow has quite limited influence on the Syrian regime.”
Decades from now, President Obama’s decision to not arm Syria’s rebels may be condemned or praised. But a visit to Moscow this week showed it has come at an immediate price. Washington’s failure to act created a vacuum that Putin and Lavrov used to boost Russia’s global standing.
“For the last two years, Lavrov has dramatically elevated his profile on the world stage,” Susan Glasser recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. “He has done so by almost single-handedly defying Western attempts to force some united action to stop Syria’s deadly civil war.”
Lavrov and Putin have also used Syria to bolster their standing at home. Kerry’s widely publicized visit coincided with the one-year anniversary of disputed elections in Russia that Putin used to gain his third term in office.
Before meeting with Kerry, Putin fired a key lieutenant who was the architect of the system that has allowed the Russian leader to control major industries, seize most media outlets and intimidate or co-opt rivals.
With the price of oil low, Putin’s oil-dependent economy is flagging. Barring a surge in prices, massive social welfare payments are unsustainable. Corruption is endemic, consuming an estimated $300 billion a year, 16 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product. Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, named Russia the worst nation on earth in its most recent Bribe Payer’s index, which ranks firms on their likelihood to bribe.
A spate of recent laws on libel, protests, blasphemy and treason has made it more difficult to exercise basic rights, the Washington Post reported last month.
Putin is probably secure until the end of his term in 2016. But a slowing economy and public fatigue with Putin are taking a toll. In the end, the key factor may be the price of oil, the pillar of Putin’s one-dimensional economy.
“If the price of oil drops below $50 (a barrel), it is a death sentence,” said a Russian analyst who asked not to be named.
On the international stage, meanwhile, Russia is ascendant. For Putin, Kerry’s request for help marked the achievement of a decade-old goal.
From the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to the 2011 U.N.-backed toppling of Moammar Gaddafi, Moscow has been largely irrelevant. Putin saw each post-Cold War American intervention as an attempt to remove opponents, not defend human rights.
“In Putin’s view, they were all victims of a cynical U.S. plot for global domination,” journalist Lucian Kim wrote last year, “where any weapon is fair game, be it smart bomb, a pro-democracy grant or Twitter.”
Instead of being the West’s potential victim, Putin is now its vital interlocutor. Maria Lipman, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center and a leading political analyst, said Putin’s logic is simple. “You may denounce us,” she said, “but when it comes to the most important international issue today, you come to Moscow.”
So, with all this, why is the Obama administration turning to Putin for help? The answer is simple: the White House’s deep desire to not get entangled in Syria. To American officials, a deal with Russia is a cost-free solution. The geopolitical equivalent, if you will, of a drone strike. No Americans lives will be lost. There will be little domestic political risk.
In truth, though, there is no easy way to stem the conflict in Syria, which increasingly threatens to destabilize the region. Blame is widespread.
Assad, of course, is the worst culprit. His refusal to relinquish power in the face of an initially peaceful protest movement has led to the killing of an estimated 70,000 people. In Washington, Obama allowed exaggerated fears of another Iraq to paralyze his administration.
Putin, though, has arguably been the most cynical. He exaggerated his control of Assad and may also be double-dealing.
Twenty-four hours after Kerry left Moscow, news reports emerged that Russia was planning to sell surface-to-air missiles to Syria that would make any American intervention in the conflict vastly more difficult. The Wall Street Journal reported that Israeli officials had warned the Obama administration of Russia’s imminent sale to Syria of sophisticated S-300 missiles with a range of 125 miles.
Asked about the sale at a news conference in Rome on Thursday, Kerry said Washington would prefer that Russia not provide arms to Syria and called the missiles potentially “destabilizing” to Israel. If true, the missile sale would be a personal affront to Kerry, who lauded Putin and Lavrov in Moscow.
Sale or no sale, the proposed conference should be carried out. Both sides may miraculously agree on an interim government.
But it is more likely that the United States has lost control of the rebels, particularly the jihadists. And Russia has lost control of Assad, who retains Tehran’s backing and has killed so many people that he cannot compromise.
Syria’s downward spiral will continue.
Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.