By Andi Zhou
While the Edward Snowden saga currently dominates headlines around the globe, Syrian rebel fighters are continuing their Sisyphean struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s rule outside the international media limelight. As government forces rally and Islamic extremists inch closer to hijacking the rebellion, the fate of a single computer technician is probably far from most Syrian rebels’ minds. Nevertheless, the outcome of the Edward Snowden affair could have real consequences for the success—or failure—of the Syrian opposition.
After more than 90,000 deaths and months of mounting pressure to take action, the Obama Administration finally announced that it would supply military assistance to the rebels after evidence surfaced that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. There is little hope of altering the strategic balance in Syria decisively without Russia’s cooperation. Russia would need to end its longstanding support for Assad and join the U.S. and other Western governments in calling for him to step down. But since Russia continues to feel duped by the West for allowing the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, the U.S. could never coax Russia to back the Western consensus on Syria without first rekindling trust and magnanimity in the bilateral relationship. With the Snowden affair coming on the heels of a long string of recent diplomatic spats between the two nations, rewarming relations in time to turn the tide of the Syrian war now seems all but impossible.
Although Obama pledged to “reset” the U.S.-Russia relationship, U.S.-Russia relations have been on the rocks since Congress passed the Magnitsky Act last December, which prohibits Russian officials accused of human rights abuses from entering the U.S. or using its banking system. Russia promptly retaliated with a law of its own, banning certain U.S. officials from entering Russia. Relations continued to deteriorate as Russia banned Americans from adopting Russian children and the U.S. deployed missile defenses in Europe. Snowden then delivered his first blow to U.S.-Russia relations in June when leaked documents revealed that the NSA had eavesdropped on communications between former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and other high-ranking Russian officials at the 2009 G20 summit in London. This leak severely damaged trust between the two countries just days before Presidents Obama and Putin arrived at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, where they hoped to hammer out an agreement on Syria.
The distance between Putin and the other G8 leaders on Syria was apparent from the outset; Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper even suggested that the G8 should have been called “G7 plus one” because of Putin’s isolation. After two days of negotiations, the leaders produced a communiqué that did little more than affirm support for an existing proposal to set up a peace conference in Geneva, as Putin refused to allow any language calling for Assad’s ouster or accusing him of using chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Russia showed no signs of easing off its support for Assad, vowing to veto any Security Council resolution to implement a no-fly zone, while delivering anti-aircraft missiles to Syria capable of taking down any warplane that might try to impose one. The G8 leaders returned home with the U.S. and Russia no closer to reaching a meaningful understanding on Syria. Then, a few days later, America’s most wanted man flew to Moscow.
Snowden’s Russian getaway hamstrings U.S.-Russia cooperation at a time when collaboration between the former Cold War rivals is both essential and difficult to come by. It does not help that Obama’s new-look foreign policy team is ill equipped to handle Russia tactfully; Moscow distrusts both Susan Rice, the incoming National Security Advisor, and Samantha Power, Rice’s successor as UN ambassador, due to their strong advocacy for humanitarian intervention. Rice, especially, has accumulated a history of testy interactions with Russia during her tenure at the UN. This leaves Secretary of State John Kerry to pick up the pieces of the “reset” policy. To this end, he has worked hard to establish a rapport with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with mild success. It was Kerry and Lavrov who first proposed a Geneva peace conference for Syria in May, and Putin specifically mentioned Kerry as the partner his government hoped to work with to draft a peace plan for Syria at the G8 summit. Now that he must also demand Snowden’s extradition, Kerry will have much more difficulty keeping interactions with Russia cordial, while pushing for a stronger stance on Syria.
In short, Snowden has given the Kremlin all the more reason to show its own citizens, and the world, that it has no qualms about defying America’s will to advance its own interests. As long as Russia refuses to back off its support for Assad, it seems the best the rebels can hope for is a settlement at Geneva, where Assad will almost certainly demand unpalatable compromises in exchange for stepping down—if he agrees to step down at all. For the moderate Syrian opposition, the road to Damascus inevitably runs through Moscow, where Snowden may have created a dead end.
Andi Zhou is an intern for the Institute’s Strategic Trust-Building Initiative.