Syria, S-300, Sarin and the President’s Pen

May 22, 2013
Launch of a ZRK S-300 missile during anti-aircraft defense exercises at the Ashuluk training ground in Astrakhan Region.

The New Times has gone to London, Moscow, Tel-Aviv and Damascus to learn about the new diplomatic duel between the Kremlin and the West, the Russian missile systems provided to Assad and its impact on regional dynamics.

The talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 7 May in Moscow have been presented as “constructive” and “highly promising,” and the federal TV channels, strictly following the spirit of the Kremlin commentaries, have called the Americans none other than “partners.” The TV cameras keep catching a smiling Putin and Kerry and Lavrov understanding each other at a half-word, judging from their familiar gestures. The main result was a joint decision to convene an international conference on Syria at the end of May. This delightful television picture began to crumble before our eyes as soon as Kerry flew home. On the morning of 8 May, Israel sent Moscow a request through unofficial channels not to supply Damascus with “threatening weapons” – the S-300 systems. On 10 May, Putin met in Sochi with the British Prime Minister David Cameron. The topic was the same – Syria.

Playing With a Pen

In 2008, Vladimir Putin was 40 minutes late for a meeting with then-Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice, then-Secretary of State. In 2013, John Kerry, who brought a “big hello” to the Kremlin from President Obama, was forced to wait for Putin for three hours, two of which he spent at the airport, and another in an unplanned stroll around Red Square. Although the weather in Moscow was good, and the formal reason for Putin’s delay was his scolding of the Cabinet of Ministers, the message was clear: despite all the “hellos,” the ashes of the “Magnitsky Law” were still smoldering in the heart of our national leader.

Kerry began to outline to Putin the American concept for settling the conflict in Syria, which seemed to many observers to be a clear departure from previous positions: the overthrow of President Bashar Assad was not at all necessary; and it was quite possible to seat him at the negotiation table with the opposition to create a transitional government. But Putin was not very attentive – he very obviously kept playing with his pen. It was as if he were waiting for Kerry to at last move the conversation to the main topic. But what was that?

The Secretary of State must have been aware that, through Russia’s Vneshekonombank, Damascus had already paid an installment in early May – from various estimates, about $100 million–towards a $900 million contract to deliver to Syria four ZRK S-300s. (The contract was signed in 2010, but in 2012, the deliveries were suspended—The New Times). “The main discussion, naturally, took place in the closed part of the talks,” a diplomatic source in London told The New Times on condition of anonymity. “The Russians let the Americans know that the contracts for the S-300s and other weapons would be fulfilled.” They also let it be known that they would review their decision only in the event that the West renounces the “dismemberment of Syria,” as the British and French want, in considering a plan to create a “buffer zone.” In reply to the Americans’ objection that Paris and London want something different, Moscow joked: “Well, let them come and tell us.” David Cameron then used his long-planned meeting with Putin to do so during an international tour in May.

Before heading to the meeting with Putin, the British Prime Minister stated that he was increasingly persuaded of the veracity of the reports of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian soldiers. “The reasons for doubt continue to decrease,” David Cameron said on 9 May in the British Parliament. The arguments about who used chemical weapons – government troops or the opposition – have been going on since 19 March, when Damascus announced that the rebels had perpetrated a “gas attack” in Aleppo. Later, the famous Swiss diplomat Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria investigating human rights violations, did not rule out this possibility. Even so, she clarified that it was a question of the use of the nerve-paralysis gas sarin. In fact, the Russian federal television channels portrayed del Ponte’s statements as truth in the final instance. Moreover, they virtually ignored the clarifications following 7 May by the UN Commission of Inquiry: there is not yet irrefutable evidence of the use of chemical weapons by either of the warring sides.

“Listen, what are we arguing about? Well, where is the opposition getting sarin?” Syrian political analyst Haysam Baderhan told The New Times. “Assad has it from old Soviet reserves. It was Assad’s Army that in December 2012 released sarin, not in Aleppo, but in Homs – in the districts of Al-Bayda and Deir Baalba. And if Damascus is so sure of the opposite, why don’t they let in the group of chemical weapons experts who have been waiting for three weeks in Cyprus for permission to enter Syria?”

Cameron’s main task was to convince Putin that it was Damascus that released the sarin in Aleppo. “The use by Assad’s army of chemical weapons, which are regarded as WMDs – this is a key argument in favor of international intervention and the creation of the ‘no-fly zone’ over Aleppo. The rest aren’t working,” explained a London source to The New Times. But it is not difficult to predict Moscow’s objections: they will say that George Bush once “found” chemical weapons in Saddam Hussein’s possession, which turned out to be only a pretext to start a war. Does Syria need such an “Iraqi experience”?

“We are prepared to keep the Russians completely in the loop of the investigation on Syria and complete it through the conference which Kerry and Lavrov agreed about in Moscow,” the British source assured us. And added: “Cameron is going to Washington after Sochi for a good reason—to meet with President Obama. We need to coordinate our position.”

Apres Nous Le Deluge

Whether Moscow will take these arguments into account is the main question. The Russian Foreign Ministry had no comment at all on the air strike in late April on the city of Sarakib in the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria. To date, despite the numerous videos on YouTube, the type of bombs Assad dropped on the city remains unconfirmed. “In the place where the bomb fell, a cloud of white smoke appeared, like gas, which disseminated with great speed,” Suheib el-Halid, a 25-year-old resident of Sarakib told The New Times:

“Some of the residents of our district ran to the site of the explosion to help the victims, but then smelled gas and were knocked out. The victims all had the same symptoms: shortness of breath, fever, and vomiting…In a few hours, the guys and us once again went there and found a crater, and picked up some bomb shrapnel, clumps of earth, and the remains of clothing at that location… We are prepared to show all of this to UN experts. We have doctors who can show everything. Now we are waiting for two commissions from Turkey and Britain.”

Meanwhile, Damascus hastened to blame the opposition for what happened in Sarakib.

“The regime is now professing the tactic of après nous le deluge,” believes Haysam Baderhan. “This accounts for the sharp increase in the number of victims; if before, between 120 and 150 people were dying every week in Syria, now it is between 400 and 500.”

Questions without Answers

It will not work to end the war without diplomacy. But how? Even if Assad does agree to a dialogue with the opposition, how will the other side respond? The opposition remains splintered, and not a single one of its leaders to this day has managed to attract any significant funds from abroad. “Saudi Arabia and Qatar promised ‘mountains of gold,’ but it’s one thing to visit al-Khatib (the leader of the Syrian opposition who just went into retirement—The New Times) in a five-star hotel, and another to give him the money to build a serious political and military structure,” explains Haysam Baderhan. “And that’s not what’s happening.”

“From the first day I took an automatic rifle in my hands, I thought that I was fighting for my people, against the army of a murder, who is still at large. The overthrow of Assad remains my goal,” said Abu Yusef, 29, a soldier of the Free Army of Syria from the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, with whom The New Times spoke by telephone.

Is he prepared to put down his weapon if the talks start, but Assad does not leave the post of president?

“If the opposition resolves issues with the president, but not demand his resignation, then they are traitors. What have these guys from the ‘coalition’ (the National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces—The New Times) done for my guys? Nothing. There are only constant reports of sponsors from Europe. But for some reason that money never comes our way…We get everything ourselves – money, arms and medicine.”

The problem, however, isn’t just the lack of means. The opposition is not only splintered; it is far too diverse. “The new leader of the opposition coalition is a Christian, George Sabra,” explains Haysam Baderhan. “But can he, for example, exercise influence over the radical Islamists from the group Jabhet al-Nusra? I will not venture to say.”

And who will?