international analysis and commentary

Russia’s dilemma on Syria

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As the spiral of violence escalates, prospects of an all-out civil war in Syria draw closer. Western governments have long pressured the regime, and even the Arab League has isolated President Assad, issuing a firm condemnation of the ongoing bloodshed. In contrast, Russia has never withdrawn its support for the Syrian leadership. Moscow vetoed (together with Beijing) a UN Security Council resolution on October 5, which contained a strong condemnation of the Assad government. Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted that only dialogue and cooperation would lead to a peaceful resolution of the crisis, while announcing that Russia would continue to supply weapons to Damascus.

Current events in Syria put Russia in a difficult position, but three factors help explain Moscow’s enigmatic foreign policy decision-making in the Middle East. 

First, domestic factors hinder the efforts to achieve a coherent policy on Syria. Moscow’s stance oscillates between supporting its historic ally and joining the international community in treating the Assad regime as “rogue” – on a par with North Korea. This hesitant response is also due to an ambiguous assessment of whether the Syrian regime is likely to collapse or remain in power. Furthermore, given the approaching presidential elections and widespread bureaucratic inefficiency, Vladimir Putin is focusing his efforts on maintaining the status quo both in the domestic and international arena. The strategy Russia has thus far adopted in the Middle East is not simply based on careful pragmatism; it lacks a broader and unitary foreign policy doctrine.

Second, and despite these difficulties, Russia’s strategic interests in preserving (or even expanding) its influence in the Middle East depends almost entirely on the outcome of the Syria crisis. Russian investments in the country were estimated at $19.4 billion in 2009, and exports in 2010 totaled $1.1 billion. Russia has lucrative arms contracts (about 10% of all Russian arms exports go to Syria, according to a recent report by Amnesty International), as well as a substantial presence in the Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism industries. It is a widely shared assessment among analysts, for example, that Russia aims to secure access to the Syrian port of Tartus. In 2002, Moscow and Damascus held preliminary talks on the subject, with the goal of transforming the port into an all-purpose aerial and naval base. Tartus is already a major commercial port, which Russia views as offering strategic access to the Mediterranean basin.

Third, Russia’s stance on Syria is partly driven by the legacy of NATO’s Libya campaign: in Russian eyes,  NATO turned a UN resolution designed to protect civilians into a bombing campaign aimed at regime change. This discredited the West’s role as a “peacemaker” in the region. Minister Lavrov has repeatedly warned the West of the unpredictable consequences of an escalating civil war: “Syria is not Libya,” Russian officials keep repeating. Russian analysts compare Syria to a seismic zone with a high concentration of tectonic plates: an epicenter of civil war in Syria would entail an uncontrollable chain-reaction of violence quickly spreading to the whole Middle East.

In conclusion, Russia faces a genuine dilemma. Current events in Syria are tragic, to be sure, but the scenario could worsen yet should the violence not be contained – especially should that violence spread into neighboring states.  Invoking the “Libyan hangover”, Russia has so far rejected the confrontational stance adopted by the United States and other Western countries; indeed, Russia has gone so far as to accuse them of being a destabilizing force in an explosive region. The Russian alternative is an effort to preserve some aspects of the status quo in the midst of a vast transition process. In Syria’s case, the priority is to ensure a power transition in the context of the old ruling elite. For better or worse, Russia’s plan may prove too little too late.