Russia’s decision to sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria complicates efforts to find a swift diplomatic resolution to that country’s civil war and underscores the persistent strains in U.S.-Russian relations.
Moscow’s announcement yesterday came less than 24 hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss plans for peace talks on Syria and a day after the European Union lifted its arms embargo on Syrian rebel groups.
“You have a level of division between Russia and the U.S. before you even start these talks that makes it even harder to bring the parties together,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former official with the Defense and State departments and the White House, speaking of a peace conference proposed by Kerry and Lavrov on May 7.
Kerry and Lavrov have yet to resolve basic differences about the proposed talks in Geneva, signaling a drawn-out process that could benefit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as Russia continues to send him naval support and weaponry. Russia’s decision to sell the S-300 missiles also bares tensions with President Barack Obama’s administration, despite the U.S. push for a “reset” meant to establish a new relationship.
In the last year, Russia and the U.S. have clashed over a U.S. no-fly list for Russians suspected of human rights abuses, American adoptions of Russian children, alleged American spies in Moscow, and Russia’s expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development, among other issues. Syria now threatens to become the most volatile issue.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said yesterday that U.S. officials “disagree and condemn the continued supply of Russian weapons to the regime.” Earlier in the day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared that, “We see that many of our partners are worried about this, but we have no reasons to reconsider our position.”
In a Paris press appearance on May 27, Kerry and Lavrov laid out the work needed to get the talks started. They haven’t reached agreement on fundamentals such as when talks should be held, who should attend them, or what issues should take priority.
“It is our hope that we will come out of here with greater clarity about some of the issues that need to be worked on in the days ahead,” Kerry said.
Lavrov hinted at a disagreement between the two over Iran’s attendance, saying the circle of observer countries “could be expanded to involve all key outside players who have influence on the situation on the ground.”
The U.S. objects to Iran’s involvement because it provides Assad with weapons and military advisers and supports the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group. State Department officials estimate that there are thousands of Hezbollah fighters in Syria helping government troops and militias allied with Assad..
Speaking on CNN, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said the missiles, part of a contract with Syria that predates the conflict, are “specifically designed not to be a part of any kind of a domestic confrontation or domestic civil war.”
“We are against foreign military intervention in Syria, so to the extent those systems, if deployed in Syria, can deter foreign military intervention, I think it will help focus minds on a political settlement,” Churkin said.
He stressed that “much needs to be done in order for” the peace talks to happen.
Will Pomeranz, acting director of the Kennan Institute on Russia at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said the Russians “really enjoy the fact that they are at the center of major international negotiations.”
“They’re interested in trying to resolve the problem, but to the benefit of their long-time ally, and to demonstrate that in the process of seeking a solution, they’re not abandoning a long-time ally,” Pomeranz said.
Fred Hof, a former State Department special adviser on the transition in Syria, said in an e-mail that Russia seems intent on using the political process to its advantage and Assad’s.
Russia’s decision to send the S-300 missiles, with their 200-300 kilometer (186-mile) range “speaks volumes” about Moscow’s motivation for agreeing to the Geneva talks, said Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
“Clearly it hopes to use the prospect of a diplomatic process to freeze the West while it and its allies try to facilitate a regime military victory,” Hof said.
At the same time, the Europeans have no plans to send arms to Syrian rebels for a few months, according to a European diplomat familiar with the process who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. The announcement on lifting the embargo, the diplomat said, was meant to raise pressure on Assad and Russia ahead of the Geneva talks by signaling united European intent to ensure that the rebels aren’t defeated and make Assad realize that he must come to the table.
George Lopez, a former United Nations adviser who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame, near South Bend, Indiana, said that after a series of regime victories in the last month, Assad doesn’t seem likely to be willing to negotiate, particularly once Russian missiles neutralize any airborne threat from the West or Israel.
“Russians might impose it on him, but Assad’s not going to go to the table, especially after he’s turned the tide in some places,” Lopez said.
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