Syria – Another Brick in the Wall of Russia’s Isolation

August 27, 2013
Graffitti reading "Thank you, Russia" and "Thank you, China" on the wall of the Russian Embassy in Damascus, February 15 | CNN

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is often put into the position of defending the Assad regime against UN Security Council actions, and the accusations of the international community. Russia has attempted to place itself between the wrath of the United States and its key allies and the Assad regime by claiming that it is only working to find a path to a peaceful transition. Lavrov often casts doubt as to the righteousness of the Syrian rebels, and questions the West’s narrative on the actions of the Assad regime, often exaggerating the willingness of the Russian and Syrian governments to cooperate with the rest of the world.

As someone who has covered the Syrian crisis for more than two and a half years, I’m very familiar with Russia’s line on Syria, and with Lavrov’s mannerisms during his defense of the Assad regime.

Lavrov spoke at the United Nations yesterday, (watch the video in English). There were certainly familiar elements to Lavrov’s statements. He started off by arguing that “hysteria” was pushing the world towards war. He went on to argue that the UN is doing its job, with the help of the Assad regime, and the UN should be allowed to work. He noted that the UN inspectors are supposed to gather evidence and establish whether a chemical weapon attack has occurred, and then the UN Security Council is tasked with analyzing and acting on that information.

He dismissed the statements by his American allies that five days had passed and the evidence trial could be contaminated. He urged that the world needs to give the UN process a chance, but that they were putting the verdict ahead of the trial.

Lavrov reminded the world that the Middle East is chaos, intervention in Iraq was a disaster for the United States, and “the right side of history” is unclear because of the amount of uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Syrian crisis. He suggested that rebels in Mali were armed by the French during the Libyan intervention, and so the only way to deal with Syria is to look at the wider regional conflict.

Then Lavrov tipped his hat that he knew that NATO or some of its members might be staging an intervention.

“Using force without the sanction of the UN Security Council is a severe violation if international law. I’d like to highlight that even if we leave aside the legal aspect, the we still we have the moral and ethical aspect. And if you leave that aside as well, the direct consequences of the external intervention non-sanctioned by the international community will aggravate the situation in a country which is claimed to be saved from dictatorship and for the sake of democracy.”

“Some people,” he argued, were trying to undermine peaceful transition. He made up a creative version of the Arab League’s mission to Syria. He elevated Kofi Annan’s failed peace plan, arguing that it was a great chance for peace. He again highlighted the June 30, 2012 Geneva agreement, again referencing the “Russian-American Initiative” that did not ever exist. He also repeated the outright lie that Youtube videos were uploaded before the August 21st attack took place.

In other words, we’ve heard this before.

But something was different this time. There was no urgency in Lavrov’s voice. He looked resigned and sounded as if he was writing an obituary for Russia’s efforts to avert international military intervention. His appeal was for the history books more than anything. It was clear by yesterday afternoon that the United States was already on a path to military action against Syria. Such a decision, requiring a significant mobilization of U.S. and allied armed forces, would certainly have been relayed to the Russian government in advance.

The Obama administration has repeatedly pushed the UN Security Council to grant it permission to condemn Assad’s actions, a condemnation that could establish the legal frameworks for a military intervention to move forward. Russia and China have repeatedly blocked that action, attempting to shelter Syria behind the inaction of the United Nations. John Kerry’s statement, however, was extremely clear. The United States had given Assad a chance to cooperate with the UN, but the Syrian regime dragged its feet in granting access to UN inspectors.

“In fact, the regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible,” Kerry stated, in what sounded more like a war speech than anything else.

It is too late. As I write this, the United States is likely moving closer to military intervention of some variety, regardless of the actions of the UN. The Putin administration and the Obama administration are on opposite sides of the same realization – the United Nations is irrelevant. If Russia has felt like the outsider at the UN, the U.S. is now telling Russia that they can have it.

If the United States continues to move away from using the United Nations as the final arbiter of international diplomacy, then this could be nearly the final brick in the new wall that Russia has built between itself and the West. Russia’s isolation would be one step closer to being complete.

And once that happens, its veto power in the United Nations will be even more irrelevant than the United Nations itself. With shrinking political, military, and economic influence, and with frustration growing in Europe and the United States with Vladimir Putin’s policies, it seems that the West may be moving away from Russia faster than Russia is moving away from the West.