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Why has Moscow backed the Assad regime in Syria so strongly?

Mark N. Katz

More than anything else, this appears to be the result of Russian President Putin’s conviction that this is the right thing to do—both in foreign policy terms and in Russian domestic political terms.

Putin has devoted considerable energy into reasserting Russia’s role as a great power, which declined markedly under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

One way in which Putin has sought to do this is through restoring Moscow’s ties with its Cold War era allies in the Middle East.  But these have either been not especially interested (i.e., Algeria), or have fallen from power – Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.  Bashar al-Assad is Moscow’s last remaining Arab ally.  If he falls, then, Moscow will have no allies there.

And as the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin has noted, “Russia’s stance on Syria is based, above all, on its leader’s largely traditional view of the global order.”  Keeping Assad in power is Moscow’s way of ensuring that it maintains some influence in the Middle East.

Further, Moscow anticipates that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria that will be anti-Russian as well as anti-Western.  Moscow, then, sees the West as having an interest in seeing that this does not happen – even if not all Western leaders recognize this.

And this concern about the rise of Sunni radicals in Syria feeds into Moscow’s concern about their possible rise in the Muslim regions of Russia as well as Central Asia.  Some might argue that local grievances on the part of Russian and Central Asian Muslims may account more for the rise of radicalism among them, and that outside jihadist forces don’t need the Assad regime in Syria to fall in order to help them.  But this is not how the Putin administration sees things.

 There are other factors encouraging Russian support for the Assad regime:

The Obama Administration’s clear unwillingness to become militarily involved in Syria or provide much support to the opposition has given a greater degree of freedom for Moscow to support Assad, and can be seen in Moscow as an indication that Washington too fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria.

President Obama’s threat of a military strike at Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents in August 2013 was a departure from this pattern.  But Obama’s seeking Congressional authorization, Congress’s obvious unwillingness to grant it, and Obama’s quick acceptance of the Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control all showed Moscow (and many others) that Obama still does not want to intervene.

There is also the Israeli factor.  Despite the Assad regime’s hostility toward Israel, alliance with Iran, and support for Hezbollah, Moscow understands that Israel also fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to a far more hostile regime in Damascus.  Moscow sees Israel as an ally in urging restraint on Washington.

Further, despite Turkish and Arab public hostility toward Russian support for Assad, Moscow’s ties with Turkey and most Arab governments have not suffered notably.  Russian-Turkish trade is booming, and President Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seem to have agreed to disagree on Syria.

The new military government in Egypt has also soured on the Syrian opposition, and so this is not something that divides it from Moscow.

While Moscow frequently cites what happened to the Gaddafi regime in Libya as reason for not allowing a Security Council resolution authorizing any use of force or even economic sanctions against Syria, Moscow gets along with the new government in Libya as well as anyone else has—notwithstanding the recent attack on the Russian embassy there.

And, of course, Moscow and the Shi’a-led government in Iraq (with which Russian economic ties have grown) are basically on the same side in Syria.

Indeed, Moscow’s policy toward Syria has not appreciably damaged Russian relations with most Middle Eastern governments—with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Moscow sees these two as supporters of radical Sunni elements in Syria, elsewhere in the Arab world, Central Asia, and inside Russia itself.  (For their part, these two see Russia as allying with their Shi’a opponents in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.)  Their actions – or perhaps more accurately, Moscow’s interpretation of their actions – have only served to intensify Moscow’s desire to prevent the violent downfall of the Assad regime at the hands of Sunni radical forces.

 There are, however, limits on what Russia can accomplish:

Moscow clearly wants to prevent a Western intervention in Syria as occurred in Libya.  And this goal appears likely to be met – not because of Russian ability to prevent it but because of the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to undertake it.

But while the West is unlikely to act to bring down the Assad regime, the war there is continuing with no end in sight.

Moscow’s preferred outcome to this conflict is similar to that which former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad achieved in 1982, the Algerian military achieved in the 1990’s, or what Putin and the Kadyrov clan accomplished in Chechnya:  the defeat of the Islamist opposition and the restoration of state security service control.

Yet even without Western intervention or major support for the opposition, this outcome appears highly unlikely to be achieved in Syria now.  The Assad regime may not be ousted, but the war is likely to continue on indefinitely despite Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government.  Moscow, then, is stuck in something of a quagmire.

Further, Russia is not in a strong position to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict.  It may be that nobody else is either.  But if a settlement to the conflict is to occur, it will probably require heavy involvement on the part of the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Should such an effort succeed, the influence of what are now the Assad regime’s adversaries will probably increase in Syria while that of its current supporters—including Russia—will probably decrease.

The possibility of an Iranian-American rapprochement could also complicate Russia’s Syria policy.  If such a rapprochement occurs, one element of it might well be Tehran reducing or even ending its support for Assad.  If this occurs, Moscow could find itself either virtually alone in supporting Assad, or playing little role in an Iranian-American agreement concerning Syria.

If, on the other hand, Iranian-American relations remain hostile and Iranian support for Assad continues, Moscow may not be in a position to effectively pressure Assad into making any concessions for resolving the conflict if he thinks that he can survive with the support of Iran and Hezbollah.

Thus, while Russia can help the Assad regime avoid being overthrown, it is not in a strong position to end the war either through helping Assad crush his enemies or providing the requisite incentives and disincentives for a successful conflict resolution effort.

Finally, if radical Islamist forces grow stronger inside the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus and Volga regions of Russia, and/or in Central Asia, then the fate of Assad—whether it is win, lose, or draw—will be of less concern for the Kremlin than dealing with what will be far more urgent matters.

Mar N. Katz is a professor of government at George Mason University.

Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhi

 

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