Is Assad’s Syria a “win” for Moscow?

Russia’s current leaders may believe that public opinion—whether in Russia, the Middle East, or anywhere else—is unimportant and can be ignored, but over time it may prove a serious constraint on Moscow’s efforts to protect unpopular authoritarian regimes such as the one in Syria

Mark N. Katz

In the latter part of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad appeared increasingly vulnerable and likely to fall to a domestic insurgency. Yet Moscow continued to supply it with arms and shield it from Western- and Arab-backed sanctions in the United Nations Security Council.

In the spring of 2013, however, the momentum turned, and the Assad regime regained the upper hand against its opponents on the battlefield. In response to the government’s highly publicized use of chemical weapons against civilians in August, US President Barack Obama threatened to launch a punitive military strike. But this move was indefinitely postponed, due both to Obamas inability to gain congressional support for a strike, and to his embrace of Russia’s initiative to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control. Although an end to the conflict is certainly not within sight, Assad does not appear to be in imminent danger of falling.

To be sure, Moscow’s (as well as Tehran’s) continuing supplies of arms to Damascus are by no means the only factor contributing to Assad’s survival. While the United States and some European Union governments have discussed arming the Syrian opposition, they have not done so to any meaningful extent. Their reluctance has resulted both from concerns that the arms they supply could end up in the hands of Sunni extremists, and from the Obama administration’s unwillingness to get bogged down in another Middle Eastern military quagmire, after Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hezbollah, has sent a considerable number of its highly effective militants to fight alongside the Assad regime. And the smooth election of a new Iranian president in June 2013 has meant that Tehran has not been distracted from aiding Syria by the need to deal with massive internal opposition, as occurred in 2009 upon the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In addition, some Middle Eastern governments that had been strongly supportive of the Syrian opposition have become much less so. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been distracted by the need to deal with a sudden outbreak of widespread domestic opposition to his policies. Further, while Egypt’s elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi broke diplomatic ties with the Assad regime and called for aiding its opponents, the military leaders who overthrew Morsi in July have pulled back from these policies.

Indeed, only Saudi Arabia and Qatar remain willing and able to provide arms and other support to the Syrian opposition, and their ability to do this effectively has been limited by the Obama administration’s efforts to restrain their enthusiasm, and by Riyadh and Doha acting at cross purposes with each other. Finally, it should be noted that, while Washington has demanded that Assad step down, America’s ally Israel fears that the unfriendly Assad government will be replaced by an even more virulently hostile Sunni radical regime. While Israel is unhappy about Moscow’s provision of missiles to Syria, Russia and Israel have often seen eye to eye on Assad being preferable to his opponents.

 Low-cost policy

In short, as a result of not just Russia’s own actions, but also the actions, inaction, and preferences of others, Moscow’s policy toward Syria appears to be working, at least for now. By contrast, the policies of those Western and Middle Eastern governments that have called for Assad to step down and for a transition to majority Sunni rule in Syria seem increasingly ineffectual.

Some have argued that, even if the Kremlin succeeds in keeping Assad in power, this will come at the needlessly incurred cost of increasing anti- Russian enmity in Sunni Arab and Muslim countries. So far, though, Moscow has not paid much of any such cost.

While Turkey and Russia have disagreed on Syria, their bilateral relationship—especially in the trade realm—has only gotten friendlier. Similarly, Moscow also has good relations with most Sunni Arab governments that have supported the Syrian opposition, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and even Egypt under Morsi. Moscow often cites the West’s “going beyond” the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1473 regarding intervention in Libya (a resolution on which Russia and China abstained, thus allowing it to pass in 2011) as its motive for blocking Western calls for Security Council sanctions against Syria. Yet Russia has established surprisingly good relations with Libya’s new government since the ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Russia’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar have suffered most as a result of differences over Syria. But Moscow tends to look at these two countries in the same way that Washington regards Iran: as enemies. Fierce rivals during the cold war, Russia and Saudi Arabia remained at odds long afterward as Moscow claimed that Riyadh was supporting Chechen rebels. Because the Saudis and Qataris back Assad’s opponents, Moscow has sought to raise concerns that they knowingly support Sunni radicals in Syria. Whether these concerns are realistic or not, many in the West and in the Middle East share them.

Assuming that Assad’s regime is able to remain in power with the help of Russia and Iran, what can Moscow hope for from its “successful” policy toward Syria? The Kremlin leadership would certainly value the impression that Russia “won” and America and the West “lost” in Syria. Authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet space, the Middle East (especially Iran and Algeria), and perhaps elsewhere would also take heart that Western-backed democratization efforts can— with Russia’s help—be successfully resisted.

But even if the Assad regime does remain in power with the help of Russia and others, it is doubtful that it will completely defeat its opponents and pacify Syria. Although Western and most Middle Eastern countries may not be especially supportive of the opposition, it is doubtful that they will make their peace with the Assad regime. Especially now that Damascus has used chemical weapons against its own citizens, they will treat it as a pariah. Moscow may find that it has to continue its military support for Assad indefinitely to prevent the Syrian security situation from deteriorating once again.

 The autocrats’ protector

Whatever happens, President Vladimir Putin’s firm backing for the Assad regime is one more instance in which Russia has taken on the mantle, like the czars of the nineteenth century, of an ultra-conservative great power that opposes political  change whenever and wherever it can. While such a policy can succeed in the short term, it is difficult to sustain over the long term, due to both the costliness and the unpopularity of the effort. Russia’s current leaders may believe that public opinion—whether in Russia, the Middle East, or anywhere else—is unimportant and can be ignored, but over time it may prove a serious constraint on Moscow’s efforts to protect unpopular authoritarian regimes such as the one in Syria.

Also, just as regional dynamics turned against the Syrian opposition and in favor of the Assad regime over the past several months, they could change again in the opposite direction at any time, raising the costs of keeping a beleaguered ally in power.

If the Russian initiative to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control is implemented satisfactorily, this alone will boost Moscow’s standing internationally and serve to improve Russian-American relations even if the Syrian conflict grinds on. On the other hand, if the Kremlin’s diplomatic effort is judged to be unsuccessful due to Assad’s unwillingness to go along with it, Washington and its Western and Middle Eastern allies are not likely to regard Russia as having sufficient influence in Syria to help settle anything there—and they will proceed accordingly.

By raising expectations about the possible success of its chemical weapons initiative for Syria, then, Moscow has created a situation in which its failure could well make Russia appear less influential and important in the Middle East than if it had not undertaken the initiative in the first place. n


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