Russia’s Self-defeating Game in Syria

  • Feb 2, 2012

    Russia’s opposition to a new UN Security Council resolution calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down should hardly come as a surprise. Reflecting a series of calculations about the Middle East as well as relations with the West, Moscow has staunchly backed Assad throughout the popular unrest roiling Syria over the past 10 months. Yet by repeatedly stepping in to protect Assad from the wrath of his own people and his Middle Eastern neighbors, Russia risks not only a standoff with the West, but the loss of what influence it has left in the region.

    Russian support for the Syrian regime—founded when Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez seized power in 1970—is still shaped in part by Cold War–era considerations. Hafez al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party (like its cousin in Iraq) portrayed itself as a force for socialist-style modernization. More importantly, it was staunchly anti-American and anti-Israeli, and quickly turned to the USSR as its principal source for weapons and military advisers.

    Those relations continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms transfers, estimates the value of Russian arms sales to Syria at $162 million per year in both 2009 and 2010. The total value of Syrian contracts with the Russian defense industry is likely more than $4 billion. Russia also leases a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, giving the Russian navy its only direct access to the Mediterranean, and Moscow its only remaining military base outside the former Soviet Union. Moscow fears that Assad’s fall would jeopardize both its lucrative arms contracts and its access to Tartus.

    Despite the end of the Cold War, Moscow’s ties to Damascus also remain a bargaining chip in relations with the United States. The Middle East and North Africa Department in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains a bastion of old Arabists, many of whom continue to view the region through the prism of a strategic rivalry with Washington. Even those who do not value Assad primarily as a counterweight to U.S. influence see partnership with Damascus as ensuring Russia a seat at the table as the region’s future is being shaped, above all through the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, and has long sought to host an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Moscow. Though its influence throughout the Middle East has waned since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow argues that its ability to talk to anti-Western governments in the region (including those of both Iran and Syria) means that it must remain a participant in the settlement process.

    Russian hostility to UN action on Syria also stems from longstanding opposition to foreign intervention to bring about regime change—especially when led or sponsored by the United States. Russia’s leaders support an international order based on noninterference in other states’ internal affairs and the leading role of the UN Security Council, where Russia remains a veto-wielding member. Moscow consequently believes the international community has no standing to tell governments how to behave domestically, as long as they do nothing to threaten international peace and security, a determination only the Security Council can make.

    Over Yugoslavia in 1999 and Iraq in 2003, Russia vetoed U.S. attempts to gain Security Council authority for military action, only to see Washington bypass the United Nations and go to war anyway. As then-Russian president Vladimir Putin argued in a notorious speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, the United States was promoting “an almost uncontained hyper use of force…that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” It thus sees U.S.-sponsored regime change as a bigger threat to stability in the Middle East than Assad’s ongoing crackdown.

    True, Moscow abstained on the Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011. It argues though (somewhat disingenuously) that it did not agree to the subsequent bombing of Libyan targets and direct military support for the anti-Qaddafi rebels. More importantly, Moscow had little at stake in Libya, and decided not to take a stand on behalf of the mercurial Qaddafi—even though Putin and others supported such a step (the Libyan resolution produced one of the few open conflicts between Putin and his protégé, outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev). With Putin again calling the shots in Moscow and discussion at the United Nations now focusing on Syria rather than the more peripheral Libya, Russia is showing much less flexibility.

    Though Moscow’s defense of Assad can be explained from the perspective of Russian security interests, the risks of it backfiring are growing. Assad’s regime appears increasingly precarious, as protests have spread across the country and segments of the Syrian military are turning against him. The Arab League, which recently withdrew its observer mission from Syria, has also called on Assad to step down. Arab League backing for the rebels was a critical factor in Moscow’s decision to abstain on the Libya resolution, making clear that it was not just the United States that supported Qaddafi’s ouster. By bucking the Arab League on Syria, Moscow is jeopardizing its relations with governments across the Middle East, which since the Arab Spring are increasingly responsive to public opinion.

    Moscow is right that without Assad it might lose its arms contracts and naval base in Syria. Yet by quixotically clinging to Assad as his grip on power slips, Moscow risks making that fear a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assad’s successors will not forget Russia’s role in prolonging Syria’s suffering. Apart from the mounting numbers of Assad’s Syrian victims, it is Russia itself that will pay the highest price for propping up Assad to the bitter end.

    Jeffrey Mankoff is an adjunct fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    Reprinted with permission from CNN Global Public Square (GPS), February 1, 2012, © 2012 CNN.