Russia Positions Itself as Mediator in Syria and Lebanon

9 MINS READDec 16, 2014 | 10:00 GMT
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov speaks to reporters upon his arrival in Damascus on December 10, 2014.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In the coming weeks, Russian leaders are expected to make a diplomatic proposal ostensibly meant to break the Lebanese government out of political gridlock and to create a power-sharing agreement in Damascus that will end the Syrian civil war. Much like Russia's 11th-hour proposal in 2013 to resolve the United States' chemical weapons dilemma in Syria, this proposal is Russia's attempt to present itself as a responsible mediator that can achieve results while Washington flounders. This time around, however, the United States is unlikely to play along.

On Nov. 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to be Russia's special presidential representative for the Middle East and Africa. Since then, Bogdanov has had a schedule packed full of meetings, primarily in Beirut and Damascus.

Bogdanov has considerable experience representing the Kremlin in Middle Eastern affairs. A fluent Arabic speaker, he was stationed in Lebanon in the 1970s and in Syria in the 1980s and 1990s. He later served as Russia's ambassador to Israel. Both Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov place a great deal of trust in Bogdanov to implement Russia's Middle East strategy.

Now, working under Putin's direct guidance, Bogdanov is trying to organize a January conference in Moscow — modeled after a previous Geneva conference on Syria — to bring together the Syrian government and various rebel factions. Stratfor sources claim that Bogdanov and his colleagues have been meeting with various Syrian opposition members on a near daily basis.

Meanwhile, Bogdanov is in talks with Lebanese political factions, including Hezbollah, on breaking the gridlock over the election of a new president. Under the Taif Agreement, the president of Lebanon has to be a Maronite Christian, but since former President Michel Suleiman's term expired May 25, the Lebanese legislature has tried and failed 16 times to elect a new president. The Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance insists on the candidacy of Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, while the Future Movement, led by Saad al-Hariri, is backing Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. Because Syria is in civil war and Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a proxy battle over the future of the Levant, Lebanon's government has been predictably paralyzed by the conflict, making it difficult for Beirut to respond to the jihadist threat emanating from Syria. Thus, Bogdanov is apparently pressuring Hezbollah to show more flexibility over candidates while promising military aid to bolster Hezbollah and the Lebanese army against Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.

By presenting itself as a power capable of solving problems for Syria and Lebanon, Russia is trying to ease tension with the United States, thereby promoting cooperation between Moscow and Washington on issues beyond the Middle East. The U.S. administration has made it clear it intends to focus its efforts against the Islamic State and will not be pulled into the ambitious task of trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al Assad — although regional players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia would prefer that it did intercede. If Russia can show that it has a diplomatic solution to the al Assad dilemma while the United States is struggling with its military strategy in the region, Moscow will appear to be indispensible to Washington. Russia is doing something similar in the nuclear negotiations with Iran by positioning itself as the nuclear fuel supplier for Iran in an agreement that curbs Iran's enrichment capacity. By inserting itself at the crux of international negotiations, Russia creates a dependency and thus a reason for the United States to consider Moscow's interests on other matters.

Syria Occupation Map

Syria Occupation Map

Whether Bogdanov actually delivers results in Syria and Lebanon is an entirely different question. The bulk of Syria's rebel factions deeply distrust Russia. Those with whom Russia can actually engage, do not speak for enough of the insurgency to matter. Besides, Russia benefits from having an active conflict in the Middle East to distract the United States, even as it tries to present itself as the lead mediator. Given Russia's questionable influence among Syrian rebel factions and its arguably insincere intentions, the United States may distance itself from Russia's proposal this time around. As a result, Bogdanov's efforts might act only as a public relations campaign for Moscow, lending Putin some diplomatic reprieve from criticism for policies closer to home.

Bodganov's Recent Activity in Descending Order

  • Dec. 15:  Bogdanov met with Saudi Ambassador to Russia Ali Hassan Jaffar in Moscow. They reportedly discussed a political settlement for Syria.
  • Dec. 12: Bogdanov met with Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. From Bkirki, Bogdanov headed to Maarab, northeast of Beirut, for talks with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
  • Dec. 12: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on the phone. Lavrov also spoke with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the phone. 
  • Dec. 10: Al Assad received the special delegation for the Russian president, headed by Bogdanov. The meeting was attended by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign and Expatriates Minister Walid al-Muallim, Presidential Political and Media Adviser Buthaynah Sha'ban, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad, and the Russian ambassador in Damascus. Following the meeting with al Assad, Bogdanov said that Russia is ready to consider arranging a meeting between representatives of Damascus and Washington in Moscow, if the Syrian side requests it. Bogdanov said, for the first time, that he "was in contact" with U.S. diplomats.
  • Dec. 10: Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergei Ryabkov met with U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft.
  • Dec. 9: Bogdanov met with Ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic to Russia Dr. Riyad Haddad.
  • Dec. 9: Bogdanov met with a delegation from the Syrian National Dialogue Forum in Moscow.
  • Dec. 8: Bogdanov met with Ambassador of the State of Qatar Saoud al-Mahmoud, who initiated the meeting.
  • Dec. 7: Bogdanov met in Istanbul with the leadership of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, including with Hadi al-Bahra, the group's president.
  • Dec. 6: Bogdanov met with representatives of the Syrian patriotic opposition, who had arrived in Beirut from Damascus. Representatives included Hassan Abdul Azim, general coordinator for the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, and Mouna Ghanem and Anas Joudeh, leaders of the Building the Syrian State Movement.
  • Dec. 5-6: Bogdanov travelled to Beirut for a two-day visit. He met with Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam and the speaker of the Parliament of Lebanon, Nabih Berri. He also participated in extensive consultations with Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil and met with Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces Jean Kahwaji. Also present were representatives of the leading Lebanese political parties and blocs, including leader of the al-Mustaqbal parliamentary faction Fouad Siniora, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary group Mohammad Raad, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt, and head of the Lebanese Democratic Party Emir Talal Arslan. Bogdanov also met with former president Michel Sleiman, leader of Kataeb Party Amine Gemayel and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
  • Dec. 5: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Basel, Switzerland.
  • Dec. 2: The Russian Northern Fleet's ASW ship Vitse-Admiral Kulakov, which is carrying out training and combat tasks in the Mediterranean Sea, temporarily visited the Syrian port of Tartus, the Russian Defence Ministry said.
  • Dec. 1: A military delegation headed by the Lebanese army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Walid Salman, visited Moscow for talks on a possible arms deal.
  • Nov. 28: Bogdanov met with Randa Kassis, chairman of the Syrian opposition group Movement for a Pluralistic Society, in Moscow.
  • Nov. 27: Bogdanov received Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain to Russia, Dr. Hashim Hasan al Bash, in Moscow at the ambassador's request.
  • Nov. 26: Vladimir Putin met at his Sochi residence with Deputy Prime Minister of the Syrian Arab Republic and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Walid Muallem. Muallem said following the meeting that "the discussions ... looked into the role of U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura. Both sides view [the envoy's role] in exactly the same way, and support his efforts to freeze the fighting in Aleppo."
  • Nov. 24: Head of the Loyalty to Resistance parliamentary bloc Mohammad Raad received Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federal Council, Ilyas Umakhanov, and the accompanying delegation. Their meeting tackled the latest regional and international developments and was also attended by a number of Hezbollah parliamentary bloc and by the head of the party's International Relations department.
  • Nov. 11: Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama held short conversations on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing.
  • Nov. 10: Bogdanov met with Syria's envoy to Russia, Riad Haddad.
  • Nov. 9: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: "The Americans have not approached us with a request to cooperate in contact with Damascus. On the contrary, it is we who constantly call on them not to ignore the Syrian authorities in the fight against ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; also known as ISIS or the Islamic State]. However, Washington stubbornly continues to insist on the 'impossibility in principle' for the USA to go as far as even indirectly 'legitimizing' the regime [of al Assad]," Lavrov said. "I do not think it is necessary for us to act as intermediaries between Damascus and the Americans. During the flare-up in the situation in Syria in August 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry called Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu'allim directly. There are also other possibilities for direct contact."
  • Nov. 7: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with the chairman of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, during his visit to Moscow.
  • Nov. 6: Syria asked Russia to speed up delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles because of concerns about a possible U.S. attack, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in an interview.
  • Nov. 2: Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade Humam al-Jazaeri said Syria is interested in joining the Eurasian Customs Union, or the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
  • Nov. 1: Putin signed the Executive Order On the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for the Middle East and Africa. In the order, the president appointed Bogdanov special presidential representative for the Middle East and Africa.

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