Russia is still on the wrong path in Syria

The sooner Iran leaves Syria, the easier it becomes to reach a political settlement there.

Russia’s decision to supply the Syrian government with S-300 air defence missile systems indicates that Moscow is determined to continue on the wrong path in Syria and deepen its crisis there.

Instead of complicating the situation in Syria, Russia should have gone straight to the heart of the matter, which is that the Syrian regime has no chance of survival simply because it has never been legitimate. It was born from a military coup in 1963, evolved into a minority regime under Hafez Assad and then to a family regime under Bashar Assad, with full backing from Iran.

Anyone having the slightest doubt about the intimate relation between the Syrian regime and Iran’s mullahs should read the public prosecution’s brief from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The document revealed the depth of coordination between Damascus and Tehran regarding preparatory details for the assassination of Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005. The explosive charge in that attack came from Iran.

It’s no secret that Israel was indirectly responsible for downing the Russian Ilyushin-20 military reconnaissance plane off the coast of Latakia, killing its entire crew. Israeli jets raided that particular point of the coast without giving the Russian side enough time to move the plane to a safe zone. If the incident is indicative of anything, it is of Israel’s disregard for coordinating with its Russian ally when it comes to raiding anywhere inside Syrian territory that Israel deems a legitimate target.

Russia acquiesced Israel’s self-proclaimed right to attack targets in Syria but Israel has broken the rules of the game with Moscow, perhaps unintentionally as it had claimed. Russia had to save face and react. The S-300 system will certainly help in the short run.

More than in Syria, Russia’s reaction was meant essentially for internal consumption inside Russia itself. This is important for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy, which is based on tickling the imperialistic feelings hidden deep inside every Russian who longs for the glory days of Mother Russia.

OK, so the reaction did its job in the short term. This does not mean Russia has found a solution for itself in the Syrian quagmire where it wants to be the master puppeteer. Russia must first fend off America’s reaction to its move.

Can Russia guarantee Iran’s exit from Syria? If the United States insists on this condition, every day shows that Russia is unable to deliver the goods to Israel and the United States. Russia is betting on a losing regime in Syria whose fate will be like those that existed in East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania.

Russia has the right to try to recapture its former glory but why must it do it by choosing the longest path to get out of its crisis in Syria? The first step ought to be for Moscow to convince itself that the regime in Damascus has no future and that any solution in Syria will require Iran’s withdrawal. The sooner Iran leaves Syria, the easier it becomes to reach a political settlement there.

Let us suppose that the Russian decision to supply a missile defence system to the Syrian regime reached its intended purpose internally. What next? What about the really embarrassing questions?

Suppose Israel continues to raid targets inside Syria within the context of its campaign on Iranian presence there. Can Russia afford to start a confrontation with it? Can Putin withstand the pressures from the powerful Israeli lobby in Moscow and from the equally powerful Russian lobby in Israel?

Let’s leave the Israeli facet aside and consider the practical one of reconstructing Syria. One of these days, Syria will have to be reconstructed. This is why Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, tongue in cheek, said during his last visit to Moscow that Damascus was going to reward Russia by giving it all reconstruction projects.

Muallem sold mirages to Russia and Russia sold the regime anti-aircraft missiles, which will turn out to be obsolete in the face of American advanced technology.

If Russia, the United States and Israel wish to prevent Syria’s disintegration, they should jump to the first step by looking for a new regime in Damascus. It should be totally different from the present one, which is interested only in saving itself.

Khairallah Khairallah is a Lebanese writer.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.