UPDATE to the UPDATE: And that’s what I get for linking to the Jerusalem Post!–which is now retracting the story of the Iran/Chinese/Russian wargames, which the Chinese and Russians are both dismissing as a provocation. I’m sorry. Even though the Post is blaming the Iranians, I made the mistake of thinking it was a reputable paper which would have at least contacted the Russians and Chinese before running the story. I will not make that mistake in the future dear readers. The Russians are also denying that they are sending naval ships to Syria with weapons and troops. So the whole story here may simply be built on a tissue of insinuations and misdirection. It is hard to figure out exactly what Russia is doing versus what Western intelligence officials are claiming it is doing (it seems wrongly–the Russians have nothing to gain by transparent lies and big amphibuous landing ships showing up at Tartus would be hard to hide), although the Kremlin does admit to sending sophisticated missile systems to Syria. The Russian media is claiming the skullduggery is coming from Washington, which is seen as arranging Saudi and Qatari arms shipments for the rebels, while provoking Syria’s Kurds, to this point quiet, to rise. There is little doubt that the Obama administration has done nothing to stop the former, though I can’t see it wanting the latter, what with Turkish sensitivity on matters Kurdish being quite pronounced. At any rate, all this seems clear as mud at the moment.
UPDATE(6/19): The plot thickens. The MV Alaed has apparently turned back towards Russia with its shipment of repaired Syrian attack helicopters after a British shipping insurer pulled its insurance. Allegedly. The ship has also turned off its automatic identification system and is not presently being shadowed, so who knows? At any rate, the Alaed might have been a poker chip in Putin’s negotiations with Obama but if so, those negotiations have not appeared to go very well. Putin and Obama put out a very tepid statement on “ending violence” in Syria, which is a good deal short of Russian support for anti-Syrian sanctions in the UN or “regime-change.” Reports describe the scene of the post Obama/Putin summit:
There was little sign of rapprochment at Los Cabos, with Obama describing the discussion as ‘candid’, diplomatic-speak for disagreement. Their body language was poor too, with no smiles and little eye contact between the two in the short period in which journalists were invited in.
In an interesting development, Iran is now claiming there will be large-scale “war games” with Iranian, Chinese and Russian participation later on this month.
ORIGINAL STORY (6/18): So, there is quite a bit of confusion on what is Putin’s game in Syria and as usual the cogent Stephen Walt of Foreign Policy has same sage words:
On Syria: As many have feared, the violence continues to intensify and prospects for a negotiated solution appear increasingly bleak. The stalemate between the regime and the opposition will increase pressure for a more forceful international response, but the case for military intervention remains weak. Not because anybody condones the Assad regime’s behavior, but simply because outside intervention could easily make things worse. Regrettably, not every foreign policy challenge has a ready solution, and sometimes “standing there” is still better than “doing something.”
Russia continues to be Assad’s primary protector, and it will be interesting to see if Obama and Putin can make any progress toward agreement during their meeting at the G20 summit. As I’ve written previously, Russia is the key to a political settlement, but only if a way can be found to preserve Russian interests and give them lots of credit for helping resolve the crisis. Russia’s amoral stance has elicited a lot of condemnation thus far, but we shouldn’t be surprised or overly outraged by what Moscow is doing. Syria is Russia’s only remaining Middle East client and Russia is simply trying to protect its own position there. More broadly, Russia has long sought to prevent the emergence of a world order dominated by the United States and its allies — i.e., one where Washington gets to decide who governs in key regions — and backing Assad is one way for Russia to remind everyone that Washington isn’t all-powerful. I suspect Putin isn’t happy about what Assad is doing, just as the Obama administration wasn’t happy about the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain. But when strategic interests are involved, moral niceties tend to be overlooked.
That last line could be the operating code of Russian foreign policy since, oh, about 978 A.D.