Rot sets in for Moscow as Arab Spring raises questions over alliances

BRUCE LOUDON
The Australian
July 22, 2011 Friday

Anti-Russian sentiment is rife

RUSSIAN flags are burned by angry protesters alongside those of Iran and the Hezbollah; at the same time in the city of Hama, epicentre of Syria’s pro-democracy uprising, a convoy of cars carrying US ambassador Robert Ford is showered with red roses.

The contrast could hardly be more telling or the signals it gives more intriguing.

Slowly but surely evidence is emerging of one of the most remarkable aspects of the Arab Spring: in Syria and Libya, in particular, Moscow has been seriously wrong-footed.

Influence it has wielded for decades is being challenged after apparent policy miscalculations that could have major long-term strategic consequences.

For Moscow, the wave of anger being directed towards it by pro-democracy protesters in Syria is not yet anything like that seen when it was forced out of Afghanistan. But, given Syria has for decades been one of its closest allies in the Middle East, and a major arms buyer, the outbreak of flag-burning and anti-Russian wall slogans are undoubtedly causing deep concern in Moscow. “These acts are a huge shock for the Kremlin,” says one analyst. But, surely, no surprise.

Despite the turmoil that has overtaken Syria, threatening President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power, Moscow has been unwavering in its support for its long-standing ally and the country that is the linchpin of its Middle East policy.

Unflinchingly, with China it has blocked attempts at the UN to pass even a mild resolution condemning Assad’s suppression of the pro-democracy movement.

It insists, as its deputy UN ambassador Alexander Pankin has put it, there can be no justification for a resolution because events in Syria do not represent a threat to international peace and security. “One cannot disregard the fact that the violence does not all originate from one side,” Pankin has said. “A real threat to regional security, in our view, could arise from outside interference in Syria’s domestic situation, including attempts to push ready-made solutions or taking of sides.”

Russia has come down unequivocally in support of the Assad regime. Hence the anger of the demonstrators, who are now lumping Russia together with the President’s two closest allies, Iran and the Hezbollah terrorists. If Assad’s regime survives, the Kremlin’s support could pay dividends for Moscow. If not, decades of Soviet and Russian involvement in Syria could be at risk.

The consequences for Russian policy in the Middle East would be significant. Analysts point out that beyond the loss of political influence, vital strategic projects would be threatened. So would massive Russian arms sales to Syria amounting to billions of dollars.

With Libya, the challenge is less acute because Moscow, despite its long-standing ties with Muammar Gaddafi, did at least support the UN Security Council’s resolution authorising NATO to enforce the no-fly zone.

Yet with hindsight it probably wishes it hadn’t: while President Dimitry Medvedev has said Moscow believes Gaddafi should step down, the Kremlin complains the West has misused the resolution, turning it into a justification for regime change.

Significantly, when the 30-nation Libyan contact group met in Turkey last week and decided to accord formal recognition to Gaddafi’s opponents, Russia played no part. Analysts believe Moscow resents the way the Libyan operation has turned out, seeing it as the start of a process of southward enlargement similar to NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic states.

Critics of the Obama administration were dubious when Washington returned its ambassador to Damascus. That he has now been showered in roses while Russian support for Assad has become the target of pro-democracy demonstrators should go some way towards silencing them.

In the great game for influence in a pivotal Middle Eastern nation, the manifestation of anti-Russian sentiment within the pro-democracy movement could be the start of a major strategic setback for Moscow.

It is a tantalising prospect.

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