A Syrian protester shouts slogans as he carries a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad, during a demonstration in support of the Syrian President in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Source: AP / Bilal Hussein
The Russian Foreign Ministry declared last week that it considers the statements by the United States and its European allies regarding the illegitimacy of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unacceptable. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, such statements "are counterproductive as they give a false signal to the opposition that there is no reason to engage in dialogue, that it's better to expect help from NATO and the West, as was the case in Libya." So why is Russia so stringently opposed to Western intervention in this Arab country?
Civil strife in Syria has lasted for a year now. The United Nations estimates that over this period about 5,500 people have been killed. Right from the start of the conflict Moscow has been consistently opposed to foreign military intervention and regime change. It called for the rejection of any one-sided assessment in favor of dialogue by the opposing sides and shared political responsibilities between them. This raises a legitimate question: what determines the Russian diplomats’ stance?
As Daniel Treisman, a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, aptly put it: “Western commentators typically attribute such behavior to Vladimir Putin's personal paranoia or to attempts to rekindle the nation's wounded pride and assert Russia's superpower status. Look a little closer, however, and Russia's actions seem motivated more by calculated – albeit sometimes miscalculated – realpolitik than by psychological impulses.”
Attempts to explain Moscow's position on the Syrian issue from the perspective of the Putin regime’s non-democratic nature are out of touch with reality. Sure, Moscow is in league with China or Venezuela on this. But the United States and other NATO countries also identify themselves with Bashar al-Assad's opponents like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which do not share Western democratic values.
Meanwhile, one year ago Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops, while the United Arab Emirates dispatched some 500 police officers, to intervene in the internal political struggle in Bahrain, which resulted in a harsh crackdown on anti-government protests. Eight activists were sentenced to life in prison. It’s telling that neither Washington nor Brussels showed the slightest concern about the “suppressed Bahraini democracy and human rights."
What, then, are Moscow’s motives, if they are not just a question of supporting “a spiritually close dictator?" From my point of view, "the Syrian question" in Russia is a three-dimensional phenomenon. The first dimension, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with Syria. It concerns Moscow’s long-running dispute (often together with Beijing and New Delhi) with the West about the relationship between sovereignty and intervention in the domestic political process. That controversy dates back to the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.
For the sake of objectivity, it is worth noting that Moscow has not always been consistent. In August of 2008 it recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even though over the previous 17 years it built its relations with Georgia on the basis of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Yet in 2008 the Kremlin did not push for regime change in Georgia by supporting the alternative "people's government." In any case, in most situations Russia does not take kindly to regime change imposed from the outside.
It is perhaps no secret that international institutions erode state sovereignty. Much has been said about the ineffectiveness of the United Nations. However, preserving the integrity of the United Nations has never been of abstract, but of practical significance to Moscow. While that may not be much, it does allow Russia to hold on to the status of a beneficiary in global politics, gained by the Soviet Union in 1945. Without that, Moscow's voice in international politics would be much weaker.
The second has to do with bilateral Russian-Syrian relations. As Treisman rightly said, “Russia has real commercial interests in Syria. Contracts to sell arms to Damascus – both those signed and under negotiation – total $5 billion. Having lost $13 billion due to international sanctions on Iran and $4.5 billion in canceled contracts to Libya, Russia's defense industry is already reeling. Besides arms exports, Russian companies have major investments in Syria's infrastructure, energy and tourism sectors.” But that's not all. The Russian naval forces have a base on Syrian territory. The base in the Syrian port of Tartus is Russia's only military object in the Mediterranean Sea. And there have so far been no alternative proposals from Moscow's other partners.
The third has an internal Russian dimension to it. It is related to the situation in the North Caucasus, the most problematic region of the country. From the moment Russia first launched the first military operation in Chechnya in late 1994, Moscow faced the problem not only of such decisions’ internal legitimacy, but also of how to minimize the risk to its foreign policy. In this case it is about a region inhabited by millions of Muslims, connected to the wider Muslim world through thousands of networks. There was never a common position in relation to Russia's North Caucasus policy in the Arab world (and there is none now), considering the diverse interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Qatar.
But while Damascus supported the territorial integrity of Russia and condemned the terrorist attacks carried out first by separatist forces and later by the Islamic underground, Qatar played host to one of the leaders of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Moreover, Bashar al-Assad clearly took Russia’s side during the "five-day war" with Georgia in 2008, calling it a “guarantor of peace” in the North Caucasus Region. Now that growth in Islamic sentiment is more or less the only practical result of the "Arab Spring," the defeat of the secular Assad regime cannot but be a cause for concern in Moscow.
One interesting fact: during the presidential campaign in Russia, Mikhail Prokhorov, who positioned himself as a liberal, sharply attacked Western policy in Syria. His argument then was largely based on those concerns, especially since among the opponents of secular power in Syria there are many people who are willing to support the "just struggle of the brothers in faith" in the North Caucasus.
Another equally important Syrian "Caucasus factor" is the situation of the Circassian community in that country. The community, which has been loyal to the Syrian authorities, is now suffering from the civil conflict. It's no coincidence that the Circassian community has appealed to Russian leadership with requests for repatriation. According to Sufian Zhemukhov, a political analyst and journalist, the “‘Syrian question’ has given the Kremlin the only real chance to decouple the Circassian problem from the Sochi Olympics. This will not solve the Circassian question, but it will remove the issue from the agenda before the Olympics games. The resettlement of the Circassians from Syria to the Caucasus will marginalize anti-Russian activists in the Diaspora."
Thus Russia's interests in Syria should not be viewed solely as "phantoms of the Cold War" and the complexes of Russian leaders. To a large extent, Moscow's approaches are pragmatic. Unfortunately, until now Russia has been unable to articulate its interests in an understandable way and to defend them with well-formulated arguments.
Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D., is a political analyst and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.
Originally published in Russia Profile
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