Opinion and Editorial

Russia’s stakes in Syria

Thomas Graham (Flashpoint)
Filed on August 22, 2013

For Syria and beyond, Russia emphasises pragmatism, sovereignty

Could it be that Russia has good reason for supporting Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad – good in both the practical and moral sense?

Preposterous, readers of the US Press would respond. Russia has armed and defended a brutal dictator who has had no qualms about using his full arsenal, including chemical weapons, against rebels and civilians in a bloody conflict that has already claimed close to 100,000 lives. Why? According to those reports, because of Russia’s arms sales to Syria, “billions ... for more than four decades”; its naval base at Tartus, Syria, the last outside the former Soviet Union; fear of losing its “last ally in the Middle East”; and its Cold War–reflex to counter the United States.

Those are hardly noble motives. But taken alone or together, those circumstances do not suffice to explain Russia’s Syria policy. Its arms sales to Syria, for example, are a small portion of its global arms sales and not critical to the health of the Russian defence industry. The base at Tartus is a small technical support facility of little strategic value, capable of docking only a few small ships at a time. Similarly, while Syria might be an ally, it is not a major one. Like the Middle East as a whole, it lies low in Russia’s foreign policy priorities, if the Russian Foreign Policy Concept released earlier this year is any guide. And Russia might be intent on countering what it sees as America’s hegemonic designs, but that stance should not be dismissed as a Cold War–reflex. Many other countries share it.

What then is missing in this explanation of Russia’s policy? Perhaps we should consider what Russian leaders themselves insist lies behind their policy, which they argue is one part defense of principle, one part pragmatic pursuit of national interest.

Moscow has been resolute in the defense of the principle of state sovereignty in the traditional Westphalian sense, of non-interference by outside powers in the internal affairs of another state, a principle it considers to be the foundation of world order and international law. Moscow might recognise R2P, the United Nations–endorsed “responsibility to protect,” civilian populations from mass atrocities and to intervene if a state is incapable or unwilling to do that, a norm that limits sovereignty. But Russia insists that R2P can be invoked only by the UN Security Council, where it holds a veto, not by individual states, and it has been reluctant to sanction humanitarian intervention in practice.

As for the pragmatic reason, Moscow focuses on the outcomes the turmoil has produced so far. It treats with derision American hopes for democratic breakthroughs. Across the region, the unrest has fueled sectarian violence. Where regimes have changed, radicals have emerged as the victors. That was certainly the case in Tunisia and Egypt, where the Islamists won putatively democratic elections, although recent developments in Egypt may compel Moscow to change its talking points. Yemen has become a haven for radicals and, as a result, a focal point of America’s counterterrorist operations. And in Libya, radicals – along with other militias – have prevented the consolidation of a central government, launched an assault on Mali, and attacked US facilities and persons leading to the death of four American officials in Benghazi last September. With that record, why would the United States assume that the outcome would be any different in Syria after Assad’s overthrow, particularly given the deep sectarian divisions and the consensus that the most effective anti-Assad fighting force is the Al Qaeda–affiliated Al Nusra militias?

Principle and pragmatism thus come together in Moscow’s adamant refusal to sanction any UN Security Council action that the United States might construe as authorising it to use force against Basher Al Assad.

This does not mean that Moscow is wedded to him. Rather, Moscow insists that his ouster – should it come to that – must be the result of a Syrian political process, in which all legitimate Syrian forces are represented. That is one reason Moscow supports an international conference, Geneva-2, to work out a framework for a political transition in Syria. Such an approach respects Syria’s sovereignty and, Moscow is confident, will ensure that radicals do not emerge from the current turmoil to dominate that country.

But do principle and pragmatism combine to produce a “good” policy? That is an open question, and certainly there is reason to doubt both Moscow’s desire and capacity to help bring the Syrian conflict to an equitable end and the wisdom of trying to hold back the burgeoning forces of change in the Arab world, as Moscow is wont to do.

But, at a minimum, Moscow’s position is not irrational. Rather than demonising Moscow as the primary enabler of the carnage, as Washington has done on numerous occasions, it would behoove Americans to treat Russia’s position seriously, to provide reasoned counterarguments where we can, and to think through clearly what is at stake for the United States and the region. The result could only be better and more effective American policy.

Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was the senior director for Russia on the US National Security Council staff, 2004-2007

© 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

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