On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wanted to reach her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, to discuss the upcoming U.N. Security Council vote on Syria, but there was nobody on the other end of the line.
Apparently, it took Secretary Clinton more than 24 hours to get ahold of Lavrov to discuss the United Nations resolution that would force Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down within two weeks. Is this what the real “reset” with Russia looks like? If so, the “reset” button needs to be pushed again: The Administration should announce an in-depth Russia policy review.
Syria is not the only area where Moscow is bucking the Washington-led coalition that includes our Western European allies and the Sunni Arab states. On Iran, Russia (and China) is as intransigent as it is on Syria.
The reason: Russia’s perception that the United States is behind this popular uprising. The Kremlin views democracy-promoting nongovernmental organizations and even private-sector social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as a part of a nefarious U.S. global agenda to spread “managed chaos.” It sounds like a conspiracy theory because it is one. As President Ronald Reagan would say, this is just not so.
Peaceful protests against Assad’s dictatorship started last spring and have claimed more than 5,000 lives. Today, as Assad refused to pursue political reforms, the insurrection grew violent. Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, are vying to lead the Syrian Sunni majority to power.
So far, Russia has refused to cooperate in the U.N. Security Council with the United States and Arab League-led efforts to oust Assad or at least to stop violence.
The Assad family has a long tradition of oppressing the people of Syria. In 1982, then-President Hafez el-Assad killed more than 20,000 Islamist rebels in the town of Hama. More recently, following the rise of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2000, the Kremlin forgave Syria its $13 billion debt and provided the regime with weaponry and diplomatic support. Not long after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004 for supporting terrorism, Russia agreed in principle to sell Damascus war planes and air defense systems as well as anti-tank weapons.
Russia’s continued defiance of U.S., Western, and Sunni Arab interests is a clear mark of disregard for the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy. Russia wants to see itself as an independent pole of a “multi-polar” world—but in Syria, this approach is backfiring. Some Russian policymakers understand that. Mikhail Margelov, a Middle East expert who taught Arabic in the KGB Academy and is now the chairman of the Russian Parliament’s upper house International Affairs Committee, said that Moscow has exhausted the arsenal of its means to support Assad. Hopefully, someone in the Kremlin is paying attention.
The list of the Obama Administration’s concessions to Russia is long—but they failed to earn cooperation on Syria. They included the cancellation of the “third site” in Poland and the Czech Republic, a ballistic missile defense plan for the protection of Europe and the U.S. homeland. The Administration toned down criticism of democratic norms and human rights violations, as Moscow stepped up its crackdown on peaceful protests in 2011 and manipulated the parliamentary election.
The White House pursued a policy of geopolitical neglect in the former Soviet Union and a lack of any tangible response regarding Russia’s strategic nuclear buildup. These concessions emboldened Russia to become even more bellicose and disregardful of U.S. interests.
Syria is yet another example of the “reset” policy backfiring. Lavrov’s cold shoulder treatment of the U.S. Secretary of State demonstrates that Moscow considers the Administration weak. The U.S. can’t afford to be pushed, least of all by a power with one-seventh of our GDP. Congress and the Administration should not tolerate Russian mischief, either domestic or geopolitical, such as in the case of Syria.
The U.S. should not shy away from articulating its priorities and values to its Russian partners—and play hardball when necessary.