PHOTO: President Assad and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Last month, we evaluated Russia’s strategy in the immediate aftermath of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons attacks.
Following the August 21 assaults near Damascus, Moscow used disinformation, delay, and opportunism to win the first round of the battle — it averted a US-led military strike near Damascus and then struck a deal with Washington that President Assad place his chemical stocks under international control.
But what happens now, after the UN Resolution confirming the process for inspection, handover, and destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons? How does Moscow maintain its political advantage and relieve the pressure on the Syrian President?
The Risk To Moscow Of Its Own Successful Strategy
With the chemical weapons deal also promising the long-planned Geneva II peace conference, Moscow faces a dilemma. It cannot be seen to delay the conference; however, there is the risk that if it goes ahead, Russia will face demands for an agreement in which President Assad and his inner circle are pushed aside.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the participation of “moderate” insurgents at the conference: he did not “rule out that the armed opposition, if it does not stand for extremism or terrorism views, could very well be represented”.
However, Lavrov’s statement also implied that there were numerous other groups that Russia did not want to see at the conference table.
So what can Moscow do to spin out the process to that its ally is not ousted in favor of groups that it does not support?
Moscow’s Continued Disinformation & Delay Strategy
To buy time, Moscow can 1) continue to delay a full inspection process; 2) cast doubt over the insurgency’s willingness to allow that process; and 3) stigmatize the insurgency by suggesting that it is to blame for the August 21 chemical attacks and other incidents.
On Thursday, just one day after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons began its work in Syria, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister expressed doubts that the inspectors would be able to reach all of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons sites.
In a speech at the Dialogue of Civilizations in Greece, Mikhail Bogdanov warned that the Syrian opposition would likely cause problems for the international inspectors. He said the team would not find it easy to reach all of the chemical weapons arsenals, because they will need to cross insurgent-controlled territory.
Bogdanov then rang alarm bells, saying he was unsure that all the chemical weapons are under regime contro:
What we really care about, and what will be objectively no small problem, is that the locations of the chemical weapons or their components will not be easy to reach. Because in principle the chemical arsenals are under the control of the Syrian government. Though, I think, not all of them. But those warehouses which are controlled by the government, can only be reached by crossing areas that are under Opposition control. And this raises the question of how to get there.
Bogdanov warned that the insurgents could do more than just deliberately block the inspectors from reaching chemical weapons stores, as he “did not exclude the possibility of provocation by the forces interested in the development of military conflict”.
The Deputy Foreign Minister, claiming “a certain mutual understanding with our Western partners”, said there was agreement on “the existence of real risks and provocations of all kinds, due to the fact that terrorists and extremists who aren’t interested in a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis, and in the elimination of chemical weapons, can create various obstacles, and quite serious ones”.
How could this risk be met? Bogdanov suggested a possible role for the Russian military — a move that could allow Moscow to help the Syrian regime secure territory — under the guise of his comment, “The question is how to cross these areas and to provide reliable security for the OPCW experts.”
Bogdanov’s lines — that the opposition may have access to chemical weapons stocks, and that insurgents seek “provocations” to spark international military intervention — are not a new stance. Moscow set them out even before the August 21 attacks, when it said it had provided a dossier of evidence to prove that the insurgency were behind an attack in March in Khan Al Assal near Aleppo.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov set out the scenario once again:
We proceed from the assumption that the episode on August 21 was not the only attack which [the U.N. inspectors] should investigate….
The information concerning our investigation of the incident near Aleppo on March 19 is available to all members of the U.N. Security Council and, as far as I am concerned, it is even in open access….
Everything is laid down there in a professional way and we have no doubts that the toxic agent sarin, which was used near the city of Aleppo on March 19, is home-made and was made in clandestine conditions….
We also have the information that during the notorious episode on August 21… sarin of approximately the same origin as the neurotoxic agent used on March 19, but only in a larger concentration was used.
A “Win-Win” for Russia and Assad
So Moscow’s strategy is “win-win”. If the insurgency allows the international inspectors to enter territory that it holds, that will check the opposition’s advance on the military front and — should Russian military personnel be allowed to assist the inspection team — raise the possibility of Moscow helping secure parts of Syria for its ally.
If the insurgency do not allow the international inspectors to enter its territory, Moscow and Damascus can blame the opposition for blocking the destruction of the chemical weapons and thus a supposed peaceful solution to the crisis. It will be the insurgency who are creating “provocations”, raising the suspicion that it is really the culprit for the August 21 chemical attacks.
Russia has already turned a very bad diplomatic position on August 21 into a victory for Moscow’s leadership and, more importantly, for the short-term security of Assad. The question: will others allow it to roll out its political strategy in the next phase of the conflict?