The West, Russia and Syria

Commentary | March 11, 2013

Wolfgang Ischinger, EWI board member and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, argues that Moscow remains the key to finding a solution to the Syrian Conflict. This column, which originally appeared in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on January 31st, is part of Ischinger's regular Monthly Mind column.

In Syria, a dictator is waging war against his own people, targeting men and women standing in line at bakeries. By now, according to UN reports, more than 60,000 people have lost their lives. There is no telling when the terror will end. Those who have witnessed the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s are reminded of the helplessness and powerlessness they felt during those years. At that time, the international community began to develop the idea that it would not be acceptable any more for a regime to turn on its own civilian population. The result: the “responsibility to protect.” And today, two years after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, we still hardly have a clue how to live up to this obligation. Perhaps a look back at the wars in former Yugoslavia – during which we had to learn our lesson the hard way – can help.

In the 1990s, it took us a long time to understand that the threat or even the use of military power is sometimes necessary to reach political goals and advance peace: In Bosnia, without the intervention of NATO, the Dayton accords that ended the civil war never would have been possible. Understandably enough, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Western societies tired of intervening. The West has come to realize that military interventions – as morally justified as they may be in individual cases – are rarely effective if they are not embedded in a sustainable political strategy. But hasn’t our skepticism gone too far? Could we not have saved many thousands lives with, for instance, a no-fly-zone and the suppression of Bashar al-Assad’s air force? Could the mere presence of NATO missile batteries a year ago have demonstrated the resolve of the West?

The experience in Yugoslavia has also underlined the importance of a joint position of the members of UN Security Council. The NATO air strikes alone could not end Milosevic’s regime. The Serbian president was not run from power until Russia turned its back on him as well. Today, the disunity of the UN Security Council allows Assad’s killings to continue unabated. For more than a year, the veto powers Russia and China have been blocking all efforts to pass a resolution.

It would, however, be too simplistic to attribute responsibility to Russia alone. To some degree, the West is also to blame. From Moscow’s perspective, the Western nations have time and again disregarded Russian interests. Former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer once said that it was very difficult to cooperate with somebody who thinks of himself as a victim. Moscow feels that it is not being taken seriously as a partner. Again, the memories of the Yugoslav wars play a role: In Russia’s view, the West would ask Moscow for concessions when these were indispensable. Yet after Russia had cooperated, the West would, as seen from Moscow, again ignore Russian interests. Moscow knows that while its power to shape is limited, it still has a considerable power to obstruct.

Of course, the West is aware of that power. At the Munich Security Conference in 2009, just days after President Obama’s first inauguration, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced a reset of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Promising results ensued: Obama and then-President Medvedev adopted the most important arms reduction treaty in the past two decades – “New START” – and agreed to cooperate on missile defense. However, the relationship cooled for a number of reasons. As the West grew more concerned over the domestic situation in Russia, Moscow insisted on full partnership in missile defense cooperation – on terms that NATO could not accept.

The case of Syria again reveals the fundamental underlying issue: If the West does not want to undermine the authority of the United Nations, it will have to find a way to convince Moscow. The fact that Russia is not fundamentally opposed to any kind of intervention became clear when it abstained on the Libya resolution 1973. Nonetheless, with respect to Syria the Russian government will only agree to sanctions or even the use of military force when it feels it won’t – again – regret changing positions.

Thus, we should hope for a clear signal towards Moscow from the second Obama administration. After all, the U.S. president now does have “more flexibility”, as he had said in the “open mic” incident with Dmitri Medvedev last year. If the U.S. decided not to re-engage Russia, it would be a missed opportunity. No one wishes to gloss over or ignore deplorable domestic developments in Russia. But the fact remains that our foreign-policy interests require that we finally address the obstacles in the NATO-Russia relationship. This includes an agreement on missile defense cooperation: The base lines for a compromise are, in principle, known, yet neither side has dared to make a real move.

Without progress in our relationship, a comprehensive Euro-Atlantic security community that includes Russia will not become reality. Or, to put a positive spin on it: As the NATO-Russia relationship grows stronger and deeper, conflict resolution outside the Euro-Atlantic region will become more likely – not only in Syria.

Russia and the West share key interests in Syria. Nobody really sees a future for Assad, nobody wants to have Syria become a failing state, nobody wants an Islamist regime in Damascus. Considering the strong historical ties between Moscow and Damascus, a solution for the Syrian conflict will have to go through Moscow. The Russian secret service is superior to those of the West when it comes to information on the Assad regime. Again, a similarity to Yugoslavia.

In 2012, we jointly failed in solving the Syrian conflict – the West and Russia. Now we can and must better prepare for the time after Assad – but only if Russia is part of the solution, not part of the problem. This makes new U.S. impetus on a missile defense compromise necessary. In addition, Russia must be integrated more closely into the efforts for Syria. Similarly to the contact group on Yugoslavia, we need a contact group for Syria. The group would have to focus on strengthening the moderate opposition forces, developing a joint peace plan, and aiding refugees.

Only with the help of all Security Council members, the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be able to succeed. Those who do not want to be forced to intervene militarily after all (as in Mali) need to strengthen the UN Security Council. The path goes through Moscow.