What's behind Russia's stance on Syria?

Amid grisly images of slaughter coming almost daily out of Syria, Russia’s continued refusal to sanction United Nations action against embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has seen it face a barrage of Western criticism.

The Russians “are telling me they don't want to see a civil war. I have been telling them their policy is going help to contribute to a civil war," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in just the latest attack on Moscow’s stance. Earlier this year, both the United States and Britain accused Russia of having blood on its hands over its support for Assad.

Russia has twice vetoed proposed UN resolutions against Syria and has made it abundantly clear that it will block any attempt to seek Security Council approval for a foreign military intervention in the troubled Middle Eastern country.

And this position showed no signs of significant change even after last Friday’s massacre of over 100 men, women and children in the Syrian town of Houla, an atrocity the UN believes was at least partly the work of a shadowy militia group loyal to Assad.

Syria has long been, of course, one of Russia’s strongest allies in the Middle East, and a reliable purchaser of Russian weapons. The Syrian port of Tartus also hosts the Kremlin’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. But is this all that lies behind Russia’s apparent willingness to leave itself open to allegations that it is propping up a bloodthirsty dictator?

“The Kremlin’s deeply held view of sovereignty as an unlimited right for political regimes to do as they please inside their states is one of the cornerstones of Russian foreign policy, and it has been especially dominant since the war in Libya,” wrote Moscow-based radio Kommersant FM commentator in a column for RIA Novosti earlier this week.

“[President Vladimir] Putin feels that the West duped Russia into de facto sanctioning international intervention in Libya, and seemingly vowed never to let it happen again,” he added.

Russia abstained from the March 2011 UN Security Council vote on the resolution that led to the use of force against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but was later critical of the extent and severity of NATO airstrikes.

“Russia saw what happened after the West’s military intervention in Libya, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan and so on,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East. “The Russian authorities might not be angels, but they are very pragmatic and they understand that if you fail once, twice, three times, a fourth time you have to be absolutely crazy to do it again.”

“Russia has some interests in Syria, but they are not particularly insignificant,” he added, dismissing with a laugh the strategic importance of the Tartus naval base.

Putin's return to the Kremlin earlier this month saw fears in the West of a worsening of ties with Russia, apprehensions seemingly borne out by current tensions over Syria. But some analysts believe Putin’s reluctance to acquiesce UN action against Assad stems more from domestic concerns raised by recent unprecedented anti-Kremlin protests.

“Syria is a vital part of Putin’s domestic policies,” said Alexander Shumilin head of Moscow’s Center for the Greater Middle East Conflicts. “He promised to protect Syria from what he says is Western aggression during his presidential election campaign and he doesn’t want to back down from that now, especially after the recent demonstrations.”

And Shumulin said heavy state control over national television channels meant there was little chance of public opinion turning against the Kremlin, ever after massacres such as the one in Houla.

“Most people in Russia believe what state television tells them, that the massacre is Houla was carried out by terrorists and the West is trying to blame it all on Assad,” he said. “Confrontation with the West over Syria is part of the strongman image Putin is trying to project to a domestic audience.”

But Russia’s objections might not protect Assad for long. Washington’s envoy to the UN, Susan Rice, said on Wednesday that the most likely solution to the crisis was that Western powers and their allies would act on Syria without UN approval. Rice did not specify what actions she meant, but with little scope left for sanctions, her words brought closer the prospect of unilateral military action against the Assad regime.

By striking Syria, however, the United States and its allies would be going against the wishes of the Syrian-based opposition to Assad.

While the foreign-based Syrian opposition movement, the Syrian National Council, has called for outside military intervention to end the bloodshed, the internal opposition is vehemently against the use of foreign troops or air forces to bring a halt to the more-than-year-long conflict.

“Many people in Syria don’t like Russia’s position at all, but that’s not to say they want to see foreign military intervention,” said Yusuf, a Syrian journalist working in Moscow who did not want to give his surname. “We all saw how many people were killed by NATO bombs in Libya.”

“But a lot of people feel that Russia isn’t doing enough to pressure Assad and that the Kremlin’s support gives him carte blanche to do as he likes,” he added.

“Russia has lost many friends in Syria. The Soviet Union helped build up infrastructure across the Middle East in the 1970s, when the West turned its back on Arabs. We were always taught that the Soviet Union was a friend to oppressed peoples. That’s why I was shocked when I saw crowds in Syria burning the Russian flag. This is a first. But Russia needs to pressure Assad more and to be seen doing so by the Arab world.”

Yusuf also suggested despite growing calls for intervention, the West had no real appetite for war in Syria.

“Russia’s stance is actually very convenient for the West,” he said. “They know how costly an invasion of Syria would be and can blame their inaction on Russia and China.”

Russia’s policy of non-intervention was backed by Dr Imad, another Moscow-based Syrian professional and one who hails from the region around Houla.

“I fully support Russia’s position on Syria,” he said. “Foreign military intervention in Syria would lead to a catastrophic war in Syria that would be dangerous not only for the entire Middle East region, but also for the whole world.”

“It’s not important who is president. What is important is to bring all the sides to the negotiating table and stop the violence – and this is only possible without foreign military intervention.”

But even if the West does ignore the UN and strike Syria, if may find it will wish it hadn’t, Eggert wrote in his RIA Novosti column.

“The Kremlin will never sanction a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force,” he wrote. “But, as a senior Russian diplomat told me a few weeks ago, ‘If the West wants to burden itself with Syria, well, we cannot prevent it from doing so. But the Western countries will then be wholly responsible for the outcome.’”

Marc Bennetts is a RIA Novosti columnist

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