An explanation for Russia's interest in Syria
09 August 2012
After seventeen months, the Syrian crisis continues and threatens the dispute settlement mechanism of the United Nations. The 15-member United Nations Security Council (UNSC) remains divided on Syria - Russia and China as its permanent members vetoed the sanctions against the incumbent Bashar al-Assad regime, while Saudi Arabia and Pakistan abstained, leaving eleven in favour of the sanctions.
Meanwhile, the fight between Syrian government and rebel forces continues to escalate. Kofi Annan's resignation as the U.N.'s special envoy to Syria has further weakened hopes for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. While many countries bear responsibility for this dismal situation within Syria, Russia in particular is being criticised for backing the government and overlooking the brutalities of the regime. Undoubtedly, Russian support for such a brutal regime, even as state violence reaches levels of genocide, appears unprincipled and against international norms of human rights. However, many complicated factors influence Russia's involvement in the region.
First, Syria's strategic relevance remains significant to Russia. Syria's port of Tartus is the last Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union and the only Mediterranean fuelling spot for Russian naval vessels. Moscow fears that any turmoil within Syria will adversely affect its interests. Besides, Syria is a crucial market for Russian arms; the $1.5 billion arms trade between the two in the last decade illustrates this.
Second, President Vladimir Putin's practice of using emotive foreign policy issues, epitomised by the rhetorical snubbing of the West, to garner public support, some believe, too influences Moscow's resistance to US-led resolutions.
Russia has witnessed an unprecedented number of political protests since last year. The protests began with challenges against the results of the Russian legislative elections, which many believe were flawed. The large-scale protests raised doubts about Putin's popularity. In this background, Putin, some experts say, has used nationalist, anti-western rhetoric as a tool to regain public support. According to this viewpoint, prospects of a Libya-styled international intervention in Syria came as a blessing in disguise for Putin, who saw the crisis as an opportunity to elevate Russia's international role and divert local dissatisfaction.
Third, apart from efforts to mobilise public support, several domestic constraints feed into the Syria policy. Official figures show that an estimated 30,000 Russian citizens (mostly women and children) reside within Syria's borders. With a considerable number of its citizens present in the hostile environment, Russia's responsibility to protect them is greater than that of Western countries, which have a low presence within Syria. Further, the Russian Orthodox Church has been lobbying in favour of the secularist Assad. They fear that with the removal of the autocrat, the probability of a repeat of the Libyan episode (attacks on the Coptic Christians by members of the now politically powerful Muslim brotherhood) with the Christian community of Syria is very high.
Fourth, the increasing influence of radical Islam on the Syrian rebel forces has strengthened Russia's resolve to support the Assad regime. As countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide aid to Syrian rebel forces, the rebels' resistance has been assuming a more Islamic nature. Therefore, a crisis, which began as a peaceful protest, has become more religious in recent months, pitting the majority Sunni Muslims against the ruling Alawite minority.
Russia fears that a successful Sunni victory in Syria could encourage similar behaviour in Central Asia, where there are large Sunni populations, causing instability, and thereby providing grounds for international intervention in the region. Having already suffered at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists in Chechnya, Russia is determined to prevent anything similar in its "Near Abroad", which it continues to regard as its primary area of influence.
Fifth, Russia's long held advocacy for a multilateral world system greatly explains its involvement in Syria. China's decision to collaborate with Russia in vetoing the UNSC resolution displayed their mutual determination to check U.S. unilateralism on issues of global significance.
However, to view Russia and China's opposition to external intervention in Syria as being synonymous to them supporting the brutal Assad regime is incorrect. Conversely, Russia's seeks to prevent a repetition of Libyan events, where the West, on the pretext of upholding international laws, went so far as to exploit the very laws they were proclaiming to preserve.
Sixth, Russia's genuine concern about the state of law and order within Syria also explains its support for Assad. This is important because earlier western interventions, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, have shown that while external intervention has been successful in overthrowing regimes, it has failed to replace them with stable and strong states. A brutal authoritarian state, hard-nosed Russian policy makers believe, though beyond reproach among well meaning liberal activists, is better than the anarchy emblematic of a collapsed state.
Consequently, Moscow's rejection of the UNSC resolution is shaped by a well-informed scepticism about its efficacy. Provisions like the confinement of the Syrian army to the barracks, successful implementation of economic sanctions and Al Assad's handing over of power to his Vice President, are conditions that Russia believes "are unenforceable".
Thus, while Kremlin may be playing to a Russian audience by blocking the West, broader interests, namely, geopolitics, multilateralism, regional stability, and doubts about the feasibility of UNSC resolutions drive its actions in Syria.
(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)