Russia has many reasons to defend Syria’s regime – by Hussain Abdul-Hussain
Russian policy on Syria might seem planned and coherent, but a closer look shows that Moscow has no end-game for Syria’s unrest, and is improvising its stances as events unfold.
Moscow has a clear interest in the survival of the regime of President Bashar Assad, a major importer of Russian arms. Syria reportedly buys 10 percent of Russia’s annual arms exports at a cost of $1 billion. In Libya, Russian arms makers lost close to $4 billion in contracts with the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi. Moscow is keen to prevent a repeat in Syria.
But arms sales may not be the only motive behind Russia’s support for Assad. Perhaps Moscow fears that international intervention in Syria could become an accepted model for the future. If Russians take to the streets en masse demanding an end to the long rule of Vladimir Putin, now running for a third presidential term, the Kremlin might want to make sure it can strangle any such movement without fear of the United Nations intervening to protect protesters.
A third reason behind Moscow’s obstruction of efforts to stop Assad’s brutality against his citizens could be Russia’s self-perception as heir to the glorious Soviet empire. Since Putin’s accession to power in 2000, Moscow has always tried to show foreign policy muscle.
This posture has helped Putin awaken national chauvinism by rallying Russians around his leadership against mostly imagined foreign threats. With Syria a former Soviet ally, and with Western capitals supporting Assad’s opponents, Russia might see in Syria an opportunity to stand up to the “imperial” West by preventing the downfall of another old friend of Moscow.
On Oct. 4, Moscow exercised its veto power to kill a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have denounced the Syrian government. Moscow’s initial support of Assad was based on its understanding that his forces could swiftly bring the uprising to an end. But days turned into weeks and weeks into months, during which time Russia might have concluded that Assad was the wrong horse to back and that, instead, it should reach out to his opponents and show itself as the sponsor of peace between the two sides.
The Russian position has therefore undergone a noticeable evolution. During the first weeks, Russia described the unrest as a domestic issue, calling on the world to respect Syrian sovereignty. But a surge in the number of deaths, standing at 5,000 by December, meant that Russia could not make the Syrian crisis simply go away.
Moscow realized that it should either come up with a solution to stop the bloodshed, or risk seeing Western capitals eventually imposing one. It therefore endorsed the Arab League initiative, which calls for a cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of the Syrian army from cities, the release of detained activists, and the introduction of Arab observers and foreign media to verify Assad’s compliance.
Damascus said on Nov. 2 that it would accept the initiative, but failed to sign on the protocol for its implementation, forcing the league to suspend Syria’s membership nine days later. Seeing that its allies in Damascus were squandering a golden opportunity that could circumvent Western intervention, Moscow circulated in mid-December a Security Council draft resolution endorsing the initiative. By doing so, Russia moved from ruling out any international intervention in Syria to attempting to shape such an effort in its favor.
The Syrian government signed on the initiative on Nov. 19 but still obstructed the entry of Arab observers. News reports from Syria said that the regime’s forces were committing massacres against army defectors and civilians in the north. In a sign that Moscow had grown impatient with Assad, Russia circulated on Dec. 24 another Security Council draft resolution, this one employing stronger language against Assad. Feeling the Russian heat, Assad reluctantly admitted the Arab Monitoring Commission.
Should the Arab mission be deemed a failure, world opinion would certainly tilt in favor of U.N. intervention. In that case, Russia would find itself alone at the U.N. fending off another Western diplomatic offensive. Meanwhile, indicators show that Assad’s grip on power is weakening and his finances – needed to keep his military machine going – deteriorating. In a second diplomatic showdown at the U.N., expected in February, Russia might not rush to Assad’s defense and could instead compromise with other world powers over his removal.
Perhaps sensing that Moscow’s pro-Assad stance could change, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Moscow in mid-November that should Assad fall, Russian interests in Syria would be “guaranteed.”
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.