On Monday, Washington and Moscow clashed yet again in the U.N. Security Council over what to do about the bloody conflict in Syria. Neither side came up with a solution the other one agrees to. But this rivalry is about much more than just Syria.
According to the AP wire report, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to compare “premeditated murders” carried by President Bashar al-Assad’s “military machine” with the self-defense by civilians under siege by the Syrian military and security forces.
On the other hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Syrian authorities “bear a huge share of responsibility” but blamed the opposition for harboring terrorists and extremists, including al-Qaeda, among their ranks.
Lavrov said that if the priority is to immediately end any violence and provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, “then at this stage we should not talk about who was the first to start, but rather discuss realistic and feasible approaches which would allow (us) to achieve the cease-fire as a priority.”
Clinton, for her part, maintained that the Security Council cannot “stand silent when governments massacre their own people, threatening regional peace and security in the process.” The ministerial debate in the council on challenges from last year’s Arab Spring was dominated by the year-long conflict in Syria, which has killed over 7,500 people.
The clash in the Security Council demonstrates that Syria is only a pretext for the broad geopolitical competition that Russia is engaging the United States in. In doing so, it is backed by China.
Even after thousands of deaths, Russia continues to oppose a U.S.-led Security Council initiative that would condemn Assad’s regime, which Russia supports practically unconditionally. It couldn’t care less about the civilian population currently slaughtered by Assad’s forces.
As The Heritage Foundation has written before, Russia is motivated by its desire to create a “multipolar” environment. It pursues key allies—such as Syria, Iran, and Venezuela—with which it can jointly frustrate American and Western efforts to consolidate a peaceful regional order.
Russia fosters these partnerships with a purpose of resisting and actively countering U.S. policies to compel an American retreat from the Middle East, distract the U.S. from Russia’s periphery, and force it to accommodate Russian interests.
Russia is also motivated by its desire to keep lucrative arms contracts. In the last decade, Russia has sold well over a $1 billion in arms to Syria, including anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG 29/31 fighter aircraft. After losing Libya as its second largest weapons customer in the region, Russia continues to be extremely critical of Western actions in the Middle East as it struggles to maintain its remaining clients and possibly expand the weapons markets to compensate for its losses.
A successful sanctions regime on Syria would be a blow to Russia’s efforts to maintain its market share. Russia has recently signed an agreement with Syria to return the former Soviet naval bases in Latakiye and Tartus to Russian control. This deal would also be in jeopardy if the Assad regime is toppled.
The confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over Syria demonstrates the limits—and marks the end—of the Obama Administration’s “reset” course with Russia. Recent elections confirmed President-elect Vladimir Putin’s tight grip on power and will further complicate U.S. deliberations with Moscow.
The U.S. needs a strategy for a worst-case scenario if Syria implodes and the Assad regime uses its chemical weapons against civilians or transfers these dangerous weapons to terrorist groups. Ultimately, the U.S. has to change Moscow’s calculus and make supporting Syria more costly than joining the Western and Arab League efforts to impose an effective sanctions regime.