Russia seethes on sidelines as West prepares Syria actions

Russia’s navy announced Thursday it is sending two warships into the Eastern Mediterranean near the shores of Syria.

At the same time, Russia’s state-controlled TV showed President Vladimir Putin 6,000 kilometers to the east, touring flooded farmland in Siberia.

All week long, Russia’s president has publicly kept quiet on Syria. Heis leaving his aides to do the talking as Western powers prepare to punish President Bashar al-Assad for apparently gassing inhabitants of a Damascus suburb last week.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted: “The West behaves like a monkey with a grenade in the Islamic world.”

Military victory ‘an illusion’

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was more diplomatic about Western intervention in Syria’s civil war.

“If somebody thinks that by bombing the Syrian military infrastructure and leaving the battlefield for the opponents of the regime to win, they will end it – it is an illusion,” Lavrov said Monday at a press conference here. “Even if they win in such a way, the civil war will continue.  Those who represented the government side will simply become the opposition.”

Russian analysts say that one or two days of punishing air strikes will not turn the tide of a war that already has cost 100,000 lives.
military forces around Syria

“Syrian regime will suffer a lot and it will lose some of its potential,” said Georgy Mirsky, professor of Mideast studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “But Russia and Iran will make up for it. Everything will be compensated for this.”

Mirsky and Russian parliamentarians say that Washington’s true goal today is the same as Washington’s past goals in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – regime change.

Mirsky said Russia will gain by doing nothing, calling such a position “extremely advantageous” to Russia. “Now if the Americans engage in a war, in a new war they can’t win, it is all the better for Russia,” he said. “It is very advantageous.”

Blaming the rebels

Leaders of the United States, Britain, and France say they are moved to military action by the alleged poison gas attack last week that reportedly killed 350 civilians and injured thousands more.

In the West, the prevailing consensus is that Syrian government soldiers carried out the gas attack, making it the latest escalation in more than two years of attacks on civilians in opposition areas.

In Russia, diplomats and journalists repeatedly have suggested that Syrian opposition fighters gassed their own neighborhoods.

Dissenting voices have been silenced.

Mahmoud al-Hamza, a Moscow-based member of the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella group, said he rarely is invited to appear on Russian television.

“Two months ago, we wanted to hold a round table on Syria, and the special services warned us that they would arrest us,” he said, referring to Russia’s intelligence services. Speaking for opponents of Assad, he said in Russian: “We don’t feel comfortable here.”

U.N. veto and evacuation

In the last two years, Russia has vetoed three times United Nations Security Council resolutions for taking action against the Syrian government. Given the chance in coming days, Russia undoubtedly will cast a fourth veto.

Putin probably realizes he is powerless to stop the West from acting. Even Lavrov said Monday. “We are not going to fight anybody.”

In terms of concrete action, Russian airplanes evacuated dozens of citizens from Syria this week. So far, Russia has flown 730 Russians out of Syria this year.

In the weeks ahead, the real role for the two Russian warships sent Thursday to Syria could be evacuation.

(Photo of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov: Kai Mörk)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.