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By Lucky Gold
The violence in Syria continues unabated and with it the international outrage and calls for President Bashar Assad to step down. So far, Russia, Syria’s chief ally along with China, has stood by the Assad regime.
But that could be changing.
In a startlingly frank interview Monday on Amanpour, Dimitri Simes, the Russian-born President of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based think tank with close connections to the Russian government and Russian foreign policy experts, responded to this question from Christiane Amanpour:
“Do you mean if the U.S. decided to gather its own coalition and do for instance what it did in Kosovo, do an end run around Russia, that Russia would not resist?”
“Since you asked,” said Simes, “We recently heard a top level Russian delegation….It included Russian officials being there in an official capacity…and this question was raised, and the answer was very clear: Russia would not welcome such an intervention, Russia would not approve such an intervention.”
Then, came the bombshell: “It would not resist such an intervention, and this intervention would not become a major issue in the U.S.-Russian relationship.”
Responded Ms. Amanpour: “Well, that’s a bit of a green light in my book.”
The last thing you want is to put him in a corner
Simes did not contradict her, but did suggest that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statements, such as suggesting that Russia “get off the sidelines,” were counterproductive: “I think it’s quite unhelpful. Because Russia is trying to meet the U.S. halfway behind the scene.”
Underscoring that warning was this fascinating insight into the Russian leader’s psyche: “If you understand Putin’s psychology, the last thing you want to do is to put him publicly in the corner if you want his cooperation.”
Calling Clinton’s remarks “megaphone diplomacy,” Simes felt they were largely for “domestic consumption” in an election year. Apologizing for being cynical, he added, “It suggests to me that the Obama administration does not want to interfere in Syria and wants to use Russia as an alibi.”
Russia should be treated as a full scale partner
If Russia’s support for Assad is far from unwavering, why does President Putin continue to support him? Simes said the answer is in many ways a matter of respect.
“They do feel that this is another American-led humanitarian intervention. That their (the Russians’) perspective is not sufficiently taken into account. That American clients are usually protected; Russian clients are usually punished.”
A prime example of this double standard, he said, was the U.S. led intervention in Libya: “They also feel that in the case of Libya they kind of met the United States half way. But as a result, there was a full scale air war against Gadhafi. That was not something they expected. That was not something they believed they were told would happen by President Obama.”
“That was a result of a personal phone conversation between President Obama and President Medvedev, the call initiated apparently by President Obama. And Medvedev was severely criticized later, including by Putin, for a kind of giving up to Obama and allowing the NATO military intervention in Libya.”
In other words, the Russians have no intention of “giving up” again. “I think it is a sense that Russia is a great power and if they (the U.S.) want Russia to be involved in something so controversial as a Syrian military intervention, Russia should be treated as a full scale partner. Otherwise, Russia would not resist but Russia would not help, either.”
Again, Simes questioned Russia’s support for Assad: “They are not supplying him with new weapons. They stated publicly that they would not use force on his behalf. And apparently they told privately both the U.S. government, and more important the Assad inner circle, that they are not committed to Assad personally.”
Finally, Simes spoke of Putin the realist: “He doesn’t want to be the only guy supporting this failing tyrant. I think he is supporting him but up to a point.”