US-Russian differences over Middle East put reset of relations in jeopardy

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) phone called his Syria counterpart Bashar al-Assad before heading to the Group of Eight meeting, despite Barack Obama’s denunciation of Assad’s violent crackdown against civilians. (File Photo)

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) phone called his Syria counterpart Bashar al-Assad before heading to the Group of Eight meeting, despite Barack Obama’s denunciation of Assad’s violent crackdown against civilians. (File Photo)
The US-Russian reset button may have to be reset again.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signaled as much by placing a phone call to his embattled Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, just before leaving for this week’s Group of Eight (G-8) meeting in the French seaside resort of Deauville.

Mr. Medvedev wanted Mr. Obama to know about the phone call with the Arab anti-government protests and the situations in Libya and Syria high up on the G-8 agenda. A statement by the Kremlin stressed that the Russian president had expressed Moscow’s “support for the Syrian leadership’s plans to carry out the internal reforms announced by Mr. Assad in order to prevent the situation in the country from deteriorating, prevent human casualties, and maintain civil peace.”

Mr. Medvedev was careful not to take Mr. Assad to task for his brutal crackdown on protesters in which an estimated 1,000 people have been killed in recent weeks. He simply called on Mr. Assad to implement reforms “and broad dialogue with the Syrian public.”
Mr. Medvedev placed his reassuring phone call to Mr. Assad a mere 24 hours before he was scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama one-on-one on the sidelines of the Deauville summit and a week after the US president in a major policy speech demanded that the Syrian president halt the crackdown and lead the reforms or resign and get out the way of change.

Mr. Medvedev’s chat with Mr. Assad suggest further that Russia may veto a draft United Nations Security Council resolution circulated by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal that denounces the brutal Syrian crackdown.

The draft “condemns the systematic violation of human rights, including the killings, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and torture of peaceful demonstrators, human rights defenders and journalists by the Syrian authorities.”

The draft warns that Syrian actions may amount to crimes against humanity and demands that Damascus comply with a UN Human Rights Council inquiry and launch its own “credible and impartial investigation” into the violence against protesters.

Russia together with India and China prevented an earlier Western attempt to get the Council to denounce Syria.

US officials fear that by calling Mr. Assad and opposing the draft resolution, Mr. Medvedev is signaling to Mr. Assad that he has little to worry about given that the international community is divided.

Mr. Medvedev clearly doesn’t like the way Mr. Obama’s reset of US-Russian relations has panned out.

Mr. Obama had sought to “reset” relations, which sank to a post-Cold War low as a result of Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008. Mr. Medvedev saw the reset as a way to lure foreign investment to Russia and promote its bid to join the World Trade Organization.

The Russian leader’s faith in the reset has been undermined by his sense that his reputation has been tarnished by what he sees as a US betrayal on Libya. Mr. Medvedev overruled his aides and abstained from the Security Council resolution authorizing the no-fly zone in Libya. His aides had warned that the resolution was deeply flawed and that it would give Western powers the opportunity to interpret it as they wished.

Mr. Medvedev took US officials at their word that the United States, Britain and France would stick to a literal interpretation of the resolution that was designed to protect Libyan civilians from attacks by Col. Muammer Qaddafi’s air force.

Instead the West is gunning for Mr. Qaddafi’s removal from power and is believed to have encouraged Libyan rebels to reject talks with Mr. Qaddafi that do not take the Libyan leader’s departure as a starting point. Mr. Obama has so far failed to respond to Russian rejection of the US and European interpretation of the UN resolution.

The US and European actions have thwarted Mr. Medvedev’s hopes that Russia would emerge as the mediator to a solution of the Libyan crisis. Representatives of Mr. Qaddafi and the rebel Transition National Council (TNC) visited Moscow separately in the last week. Russia has insisted that talks to resolve crisis should involve all political parties and tribes and has ensured that it maintains contacts with both the rebels and the embattled Libyan leader.

The Russian foreign ministry, in a statement on Wednesday, called NATO attacks on Wednesday near Mr. Qaddafi’s compound a “grave departure” from the UN resolution that was prompting the Libyan leader to dig in his heels.

“Air strikes are not stopping the military confrontation between the Libyan parties and only creating more suffering among peaceful civilians,” the ministry said.

Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Obama are also at odds over how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russian officials played down the significance of last week’s Middle East policy speech by the US president despite his acknowledgment for the first time that the boundaries of a future Palestinian state should be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

While the two men differ on the modalities of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian state, including whether a Palestinian state should be demilitarized, their most important difference is on the impact of the reconciliation agreement between Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Al Fatah and Hamas.

Mr. Obama insists that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce violence before it gets to sit at the negotiating table.

By contrast, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has described the agreement as designed to establish “favorable conditions” for the resumption of peace talks, and noted that Russia had “actively contributed” to Egypt’s successful efforts to end the Palestinian feud. To drive the point home, Mr. Lavrov met this weekend with a Palestinian delegation that included representatives of Hamas.

Mr. Medvedev’s discontent over how the reset of relations with the United States has panned out is compounded by the fact that he fears that US-Russian talks on missile defense intended to break the deadlock on arms control involving tactical nuclear weapons are going nowhere. The Russian leader recently warned that a failure to agree on “a model of cooperation in anti-missile defense” would result in “the kind of scenario that would throw us back into the Cold War era.”

Russia’s concern about the European missile shield, a system of interceptors meant to protect from rogue-state attacks, escalated May 3, when the US agreed to station interceptor missiles at a Romanian air base as part of a system that will also include facilities in Poland, another former Soviet bloc country.

Mr. Obama will need to do some tough bargaining to prevent the reset of his relations with Mr. Medvedev from collapsing. Mr. Medvedev has said he would cooperate with the missile defense system if Russia were to be acknowledged as an equal partner.

That’s a tall order. It would mean that Russia too would have a finger on the control button that would launch an anti-missile. Mr. Medvedev may see the Middle East as the bargaining chip in achieving Russian parity in anti-missile defense. It’s a trade-off that ultimately could work in Mr. Obama’s favor.


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