Anybody who believes that the Russians dish out favours free-of-charge needs a crash course in “Contemporary Russian Politics 101”. Pro-regime Syrians celebrated the double veto at the United Nations Security Council last week - the second in less than five months - failing to realise that more than anything else, such a veto complicates things even further, for Syrian authorities.

Let’s start with the basics …

Russia does not do things for free - it never has, and never will. And it supports its own interests in Syria, rather than the interests of any particular regime in Damascus. Syria and Russia after all, have been close allies ever since 1957. Its number one man in Damascus was Salah Jadid, the military strongman of Syria during the years 1966-1970. When Moscow got assurances that his main contender Hafez al-Assad was going to preserve Russian interests in Syria, it simply looked the other way when a coup d’etat toppled Jadid in 1970 - and kept him in jail for over 20-years - not lifting a finger to help him.

As of mid-Friday, February 3, it was highly probable that the Russians would not veto a United Nations Resolution against Syria, put forth by the Arab League, the United States, and the European Union. They had little reason to do so, after the anti-Syria bloc agreed to all of their amendments to the original draft, omitting any reference to a military strike, and to arms sanctions on Damascus. The Russians probably reasoned that a veto would guarantee their short-term interests in Syria, but it would certainly keep them out of any future long-term deal for the country.

The Russians were seemingly willing to “share” influence with the US on Syria, and be part of an international consensus - the first step of which would be a strong-worded UN resolution. Russia, in principle, was not opposed to the crux of the resolution, based on the Arab League Initiative that was issued last January. The initiative calls on Assad to delegate powers to his vice president, for the specific purpose of creating a cabinet of national unity, but it does not call on him to step down.

The Americans and the EU were pushing Russia to accept a clause that said: “The United Nations Resolution supports the Arab League Initiative.” The clause would not go into details, and this, it was believed, would leave the door open for expanded interpretation of the Arab League Initiative. “Constructive ambiguity” is the word used at the UN, hoping that “delegating powers to his vice” could be interpreted in the future as a call to step down. The UN resolution on Libya, for example, did not authorize a military strike, but only to “protect civilians”.

The “ambiguity” of the Libyan resolution allowed the international community to use it to justify a war last March that eventually toppled Gaddafi, and similar ambiguity might lead to gradual regime-change in Syria, with Russia’s fingerprints all over it. Russia, it must be noted, is very impressed by the Yemeni solution, which provided a win-win scenario for Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Yemeni opposition, and was planning to hammer out a similar deal for Syria.

Due to Russian support for the Initiative, as of mid-Friday, the Security Council meeting was changed from Monday and made two days earlier, on a Friday. The presence of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Minister William Hague and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe were all indicators that the international community was very serious about Syria, and wanted maximal Russian cooperation, which the Russians were originally, willing to offer. Then came three important developments that changed the course of events. They were related more so to Russian-US relations, than to Syria.

The first was a “bargaining” meeting in Munich between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday morning. That ended in failure because the Russians asked for more than what the Americans were willing to offer, in exchange for lenience on Syria. The two sides disagreed on Russian-American issues, more so than on Syria.

Lavrov asked the US to stop lobbying against presidential candidate Vladimir Putin ahead of the March 4 elections in Moscow. They asked the US for guarantees and concessions on the US missile defense plan in Europe, which dates back to the 1980s, that calls for a system of interceptors based on land and sea around Europe. The Barack Obama administration, which revamped the project two years ago, says it is intended against Iranian missiles, but the Russians believe that it targets them rather than Iran.

On Thursday, Putin had said to Russian TV (Channel 1) that he considered the missile defence system to be a threat to Russia. He estimated that the missile defense radars deployed near Russia’s borders will cover its territory, making it technically possible to intercept Russian missiles. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had to date refused to give Russia any guarantees on the matter. At the Munich Conference, Clinton reportedly failed to give Lavrov those guarantees, which prompted the Russians to change course on the Syria Resolution.

After that meeting collapsed, Obama aired a message that was very tough on the Syrians, distancing himself from Moscow, and the Russians said that Lavrov would be visiting Damascus on Tuesday. Obama’s speech was only delivered, it must be noted, when it was crystal clear to the Americans that the resolution would not pass at the UN. Very important was the fact that joining Lavrov on the Syria visit was the director of Russian intelligence Mikhail Fradkov, who knows the Syrian scene inside-out, and who is very close to Putin himself.

The third development was Lavrov threatening a “scandal” in the UN if the Americans went through with the Syria resolution, which they did, annoyed by the fact that he had been snubbing and avoiding Clinton’s phone calls to discuss Syria. That resulted in a double veto, which took all players by surprise, completely demoralizing the Syrian street, which was now calling for arms as the only solution to the current uprising. Most ground activists were now saying: “Enough with diplomacy. It did not work. Now it is arms vs. arms, and we will see who wins.” The veto, no doubt, greatly plays out in favor of the Free Syrian Army.

The crisis in Syria now is snowballing into a stand-off between Russia and the US. Foreign policy, Iran, and America’s support for democracy are becoming a central part of Obama’s election campaign, ahead of the November elections. Restoring Russia’s influence, and its counter-balance to the US, is becoming a crux of Putin’s presidential campaign for elections in March. According to heavyweight Lebanese chief Walid Jumblatt, who recently visited Moscow, Lavrov told him that “Assad will stay so long as Putin stays.”

Both the Russians and Americans will be using Syria in their presidential campaign, which means that the crisis might drag on longer than most people predicted. Today in Damascus, the question is: “What next after the Russian veto?” The Russians are still preparing their Initiative, which builds upon the Arab League one, but will be marketed and packaged as a Russian plan for Syria, from A to Z.

It will be a new model for the Arab Spring, signed by Moscow, different from Nato’s Libya, and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Yemen. That initiative was carried by Lavrov to Damascus on Tuesday. If he manages to convince the Syrians, Putin would be making a point: standing up to the Security Council on Saturday, and then, during the same week, coming up with a solution to the same crisis he is accused of obstructing.

There is of course a completely different option on the table, and Clinton went to the UN knowing perfectly well that the Russians would veto the Resolution. The West needed the veto to tell the world: “We tried to do it through diplomatic channels, under the UN umbrella, but that did not work.” If that happens, it would give the US and the EU the pretext to take unilateral action on Syria, just like Kosovo and Iraq in 2003.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced, shortly after the latest double veto, that a “friends of Syria” alliance was being created in the international community, which would include France, the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, either and the GCC, perhaps specifically for this purpose, to eventually mandate a “surgical strike” against Damascus, funded by the Gulf, and a no-fly zone, imposed by Turkey.

If Western countries are still interested in obtaining a UN consensus, they can always take the matter to the General Assembly, invoking resolution 377 A of 1950: “the Uniting for Peace” Resolution. That was created during the Korean War to avoid a Soviet veto at the Security Council, empowering the General Assembly to “consider the matter immediately and issue recommendations it deems necessary in order to restore international peace and security.” Such a resolution, of course, cannot be vetoed by the Russians and Chinese, and all it would need is a majority vote in the General Assembly. Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

–Asia Times Online