Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Iran on June 13 for a one-day meeting with Iranian officials. Iran is looking to Russia for support in a number of areas as regional tensions continue to escalate. Russia is meanwhile exploiting an opportunity to keep the U.S. tied down in the Middle East. The United States naturally sees Russia as a major impediment to its interests in this region, but when it comes to avoiding military intervention in Syria, Moscow may indirectly be doing Washington a favor.
Iran is relying heavily on Russia these days for two reasons: it needs Russia's military backing for its allies in Syria, and it needs Russia's diplomatic backing and economic cooperation in trying to dilute a U.S.-led sanctions campaign.
Russia is sending a message that Western intervention based on humanitarian grounds sets a dangerous precedent for itself and other key powers like China. More important, Russia is looking for ways to keep U.S. attention on the Middle East — and thus away from Russian actions in places like Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia in the former Soviet periphery.
The United States and its allies naturally have a number of reasons to distrust Russian intentions. After all, Russia is allegedly providing the Syrian Alawite regime with attack helicopters and other critical weaponry to counter the influx of arms now reaching the Syrian rebels through U.S., Saudi, Qatari and Turkish intermediaries. Russian military assistance in boosting Syria's already well-integrated air defense network also seriously complicates any contingency plans for a military intervention on behalf of the rebels.
And while Russia is not a market for Iranian oil, Russia has played an important role in helping Iran circumvent sanctions, especially via the Russian banking system. And now that the Bushehr card has been played, Russia has also been waving a threat to build additional nuclear power plants for Iran.
The United States is no stranger to Russian motives. The question should then be asked: Why is the U.S. so concerned about getting Russian buy-in for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis?
When the U.S. intervened in Libya, little regard was given to Russia's opinion that such an intervention was unjustified and would lead to greater instability. Now, statements from U.S. officials cite Russia as the main obstacle to more decisive U.S. action in Syria and speak of the need to get Russian support in pressuring the Syrian regime to stand down.
It should not come as a shock to anyone that Russia is backing Syria. That the U.S. is publicly demonstrating it not only cares about this backing — but is inhibited by it — is a notable difference from the Libyan situation.
As Stratfor has discussed before, there are a number of reasons — independent of Russia — why the United States does not want to resort to a military intervention in Syria. Such an intervention could reignite sectarian tensions across the region and bog the U.S. down even more in the Islamic world. The United States thus appears content for now with using Russia as a political cover for its unwillingness to militarily intervene in Syria. This allows the U.S. to focus on covert operations in trying to fortify the Syrian rebellion and force a collapse of the Syrian regime from within — a strategy that is also fraught with risks for the wider region.