Monday, April 02, 2012

Realpolitik in Istanbul

The Syrian uprising, perhaps more than any other recent international crisis, has seen states shamelessly engage in realpolitik. Nothing exemplifies this better than the ongoing “Friends of Syria” conference in Istanbul, which exposed the Syrian question as a dramatic self-interested diplomatic free-for-all. This marks a change from recent crises such as Libya and Iraq, where the Great Powers did not have strong conflicting interests, so it could be framed entirely in liberal terms. But the Syrian crisis is different. Perhaps, the greatest factor behind this change in diplomatic style is the fact that Russian interests are at stake. Russia does not bother to give its international diplomacy a liberal veneer and instead operates from hard line realists assumptions: in an anarchic international society, Russia prioritises its own security and national interests over any moral or ideological considerations. In the current diplomatic context that means shielding Assad’s regime from international pressure by blocking UNSC resolutions as well as supplying a constant flow of heavy weaponry and ammunition.

Russia has some serious interests at play in Syria. First and fore mostly, the Russian naval base at Tartus, provides Russia’s only access to the Mediterranean Sea and is crucial for Russian power projection across the region. In light of increasing tensions with the West as a result of the 2008 South Ossetia war as well as the ongoing US missile defence shield saga, Russia believes it is essential to have easy access to European waters. In November 2011, a naval flotilla, led by the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, sailed to the base as a show of support for al-Assad. Russia is also concerned about the growing strength of Islamists in the region, particularly in Chechnya and other volatile Russian provinces in the Caucuses. Many in Moscow fear that the downfall of Assad’s secular regime would inevitably lead to a far more radical Islamist one. Perhaps most important however, are the commercial interests at play. According to BBC sources, 10% of Russia's global arms sales go to Syria, with current contracts estimated to be worth $1.5bn (£950m).

Russia is not the only power with interests at stake. Qatar wants regime change in order to build its lucrative gas pipeline to Turkey while Saudi Arabia wants Assad gone to weaken its region rival, Iran. Turkey is also involved given that it wants to stop the flow of refugees from Syria into its eastern provinces. It also has experienced a breakdown in relations with Syria and hopes that regime change, particularly if it strengthens the Muslim Brotherhood, will see their influence increase and help them solidify their status as the great power of the region. A new government led by the Brotherhood would of course have the added benefit of weakening the Kurdish minority, who continue to plague the government in Ankara. For the US, removing a long term enemy from the region would not only enhance American power, but also damage both Russian and Iranian influence, its two biggest threats at present.

These treacherous diplomatic conditions make it hard to see how the crisis will be resolved. Of course, the overwhelming military advantage of the US should give it considerable clout, but any threat to engage serious military resources is not credible given the political climate back home. Instead, international ‘uproar’ will continue and foreign ministers shall continue to come up with wonderfully concerned sound bites until Russia can find a satisfactory regime to replace Assad. Until then, the horrific slaughter will tragically go unstopped.

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