The latest issue of the German journal OSTEUROPA contains a virtual roundtable on Russia and Syria. The editors sent a set of questions to six different scholars (including myself) and invited us each to pick from among them several to address. Their questions and our responses were published by the journal in German. Here in English are my responses to the questions I chose to address:
OSTEUROPA: The Syrian civil war has sectarian, ethnical, social, and geopolitical dimensions. It is an internal conflict, but regional and even global actors also play an important role. Moreover, in most of the states involved, Syria policy has a domestic function. Which of the conflict’s dimensions does Russian diplomacy emphasize? On which level (local, regional, global) is Moscow most engaged? Why?
Katz: The Syrian conflict has been especially important for Moscow on the global and regional level as well as on the domestic Russian political level. Moscow has identified Syria as the place where it seeks to halt American “unipolarism” if it can. In addition, Moscow believes that however bad the Assad regime is, it is better than what Moscow sees as most likely to arise after its downfall: a Sunni radical regime. Finally, after so publicly backing Assad for so long, Putin does not want to be seen as giving in to U.S. demands that Moscow cooperate in bringing about his downfall.
OSTEUROPA: Moscow argues that an international jihadist movement threatens order throughout the region, from the Caucasus via Syria to North Africa. Is this an actual danger? Does Moscow really fear such a jihadist movement or is it wilfully exaggerating the risk?
Katz: It is not clear that this is an actual danger, but it does appear that Moscow really believes that it is one.
OSTEUROPA: When Russia launched airstrikes against Georgia in 2008, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invoked not only the Russian Constitution, which calls for the protection of Russian citizens abroad, but also the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), a norm that is grounded in international law since 2005 and binds the international community to prevent or halt mass atrocity crimes. Is there any debate on R2P in Russia today (at least in the sense that, in Syria, the requirements for international measures of enforcement according to principle of R2P have not yet been met)?
Katz: Russia has adopted a double-standard with regard to R2P. While opposing Western intervention on the basis of R2P (as well as expressing deep scepticism about whether concern for R2P underlies it), Moscow reserves for itself the right to intervene in former Soviet republics on the basis of its unilateral assertion of an R2P justification without consulting the UN Security Council.
OSTEUROPA: Russia has an interest in enforcing compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Why does Moscow refuse even limited air strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons?
Katz: The Kremlin fears that if it agrees to this, the West will not limit itself to limited air strikes, but will give large-scale aid to the Syrian opposition to topple Assad.
OSTEUROPA: Is Russia seriously interested in resolving the Syrian conflict? Does Moscow have concrete proposals for settling the conflict? Or is Moscow content with simply countervailing the United States?
Katz: Moscow would like to see the Syrian conflict end through the Assad regime totally crushing its opponents, and thereby restoring “order.” Until that occurs, Moscow seeks to block the U.S. and its allies from helping the Syrian opposition stop Assad from doing this.
OSTEUROPA: What would a joint U.S.-Russian position on Syria look like? What would Washington have to do to convince Moscow to accept such a compromise?
Katz: Despite their agreement about placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control, Moscow and Washington agree on little else regarding Syria. Their most crucial disagreement is about whether the Assad regime should remain in power or not. It is doubtful that either will convince the other to adopt its view.
OSTEUROPA: What role does Iran play in the conflict? Could Moscow help to resolve the conflict by using its connections in Tehran?
Katz: Like Russia, Iran provides important support to the Assad regime. If anything, Tehran is more committed to the Assad regime remaining in power than Moscow is. This being the case, it is highly unlikely that Moscow could make use of its Iranian connections to resolve this conflict. If, however, an Iranian-American rapprochement takes place, then Washington and Tehran may be able to work together to do so—and thereby force Moscow to go along with them or be completely isolated over Syria otherwise.
OSTEUROPA: Could the involvement of the International Criminal Court serve to de-escalate the conflict?