Russia and the Syria-Ukraine Connection

Mar 6, 2014 5:31pm

One of the Obama administration’s highest-ranking diplomats said today that Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis – militarily backing a secessionist movement in Crimea –  does not appear to have bled over into its role as a negotiator in Syria’s bloody, three-year civil war. But the reality of how the conflicts play off each other is less clear.

“I believe Russia remains committed to the object here, which is the removal and destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile,” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday.

Responding to questions from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Burns confirmed reports that weapons removal could still meet its June deadline and that, so far, he has not seen evidence Moscow would allow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to change course.

“That’s an area where I believe Russia has a self-interest in trying to ensure that that happens,” Burns said. “It’s not a favor to the United States. It’s something that Russia has committed to and I hope we can accomplish that goal.”

He added the caveat that Moscow’s intentions are “hard to predict,” but, “as I said before, I think Russia, having made a very visible and public commitment to accomplishing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, I think, has a self-interest in trying to ensure that that happens.”

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Not everyone agrees that Russia’s role in the Ukraine had no implications for Syria or vice versa. Burns may have said Russia continues to cooperate on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, but made no mention of Russia playing a constructive role in the peace talks to end the conflict that, by United Nations estimates, has killed more than 100,000 people. Indeed, the ambassador voiced ongoing frustration with Moscow’s reluctance to push Assad harder in the conflict, now a center for fighting among foreign Islamic extremist factions.

A growing number of Syria experts are pointing to what they see as a Russian trend in both places: putting its own interest ahead of peaceful solutions regardless of what the U.S. and international community wish to see as an outcome.

Edward Joseph, a Middle East expert at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies wrote that while Russia is embroiled in the Ukraine, this is the time for the Obama administration to test Putin’s real resolve on Syria.

“Even if the Obama administration is wedded to diplomacy with Russia, it might as well maximize whatever prospects there are (which may prove minimal) to exact Russian cooperation on Syria, simultaneously forcing Moscow to show its true cards,” said Joseph. “President Obama has already acknowledged that the diplomatic track is not working, so there is little risk for even a highly risk-averse White House in actively testing the Russians.”

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There is also the Republican criticism that President Obama’s wavering on the “red line” on use of chemical weapons in Syria set a precedent that has led Russia to not take the president seriously.

“I think that [there is] the permissive environment that we have created through this reset, thinking that someone like Putin reacts to warmth and charm and reach-out, when what he really reacts to is weakness,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said at a hearing Thursday.

“I think he has seen that in our foreign policy efforts over the course of this last year,” Corker added. “I don’t think we can make a case that what happened in Crimea wouldn’t have happened, but I certainly don’t think he has felt that there would be much of a push-back from us.”

Former U.S. special representative on Syria, Ambassador Fred Hoff, said Wednesday that while his assessment wouldn’t go that far in placing blame, the U.S. approach to Syria is having an effect on the Ukraine crisis.

“Our approach to Syria has not discouraged Putin’s approach to the Ukraine,” Hoff said.

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