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The Growing Costs of Russia's Syrian Strategy

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Last month I wrote that there were grounds for cautious optimism in Russia's stance on Syria. Unfortunately recent events threaten to overwhelm them.

Although the events of the massacre near the town of Houla in Syria are still unclear, the scale of the tragedy is not. United Nations observers reported at least 108 people had been killed, including 49 children, with the majority having been stabbed or shot at close range.

Initially the response from the international community seemed heartening. The UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted a statement condemning the killings and calling on the Syrian government to withdraw all heavy weaponry from residential areas.

That, however, was where the spirit of cooperation appears to have stopped. Russia and China, both permanent members of the UNSC, have refused to countenance further action against the al-Assad government.

Indeed at a press conference with his British counterpart this week Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, appeared to suggest that Syria's opposition may have played a role in the Houla massacre.

"Both sides participated in the killing of civilians. This district is controlled by armed militants."

While it is easy to point the finger at Moscow as providing cover for the Syrian regime that analysis missed some important considerations.

Firstly the chaotic aftermath of interventions in Iraq and Libya undoubtedly play a part in Russia's thinking. The fear is that the removal of a government where power has been highly centralised can lead to political and social fragmentation, potentially worsening the humanitarian crisis that is already building.

Moreover there are also economic concerns. As has been widely discussed, the Russian Federation is one of Syria's closest trading partners and largest arms supplier. Policymakers in Moscow will no doubt be wary of ceding too much ground after having had its fingers burned in Libya where Russian companies lost lucrative contracts despite giving tacit support for the no-fly zone.

Given these factors, it should perhaps be heartening to hear Lavrov reaffirm the government's commitment to implementing the Kofi Annan's peace plan and pledged to use its influence over President Bashar al-Assad to push for Syrian government compliance:

"We don't back the Syrian regime, we back the Kofi Annan plan."

Yet this discussion assumes that strategic considerations are taking priority over ideological priorities. And here there are worrying signs.

In his first trip abroad since his inauguration President Vladimir Putin travelled to Minsk to meet with the moustachioed autocrat Alexander Lukashenko. Some have seen this as a further sign of tensions between the Kremlin and western powers after Putin's decision not to attend the G8 summit at Camp David last month.

Of course, Russia has made no secret of its desire to improve relations with its neighbours. Indeed Putin has been a key supporter behind the creation of the Eurasian Union, an economic framework comprising of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan. The timing, however, appeared designed to send a message about the new president's priorities.

So what points can be drawn from recent events?

Russia's perceived support for the al-Assad government is beginning to cost the country politically. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that Russia's blocking of action against Bashar al-Assad was "going to help to contribute to a civil war".

Under these circumstances the strategic benefits of standing between the West and Syria will increasingly have to be weighed against the collateral cost.

Houla has helped to push the scales and if they are pushed any further it may well become clear whether strategic thinking is playing second fiddle to broader ideological goals.

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