Russia has been Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest protector. Although the British parliament’s decision not to intervene militarily in Syria has disappointed Washington, as of writing it seems unlikely to affect its resolution to strike against the Assad’s regime. When it does so, it will inevitably anger Moscow and further contribute to its belief that the United States seeks to be a “monopolar” power that acts however it wants on the world stage.
But why has Moscow been so stalwart in its support of an undeniably odious regime? It is possible to talk glibly of a natural affinity between autocrats (although Vladimir Putin clearly still commands the support of a clear majority of Russians) or a fear of some global swing against authoritarian regimes (though there are many dominos between Damascus and Moscow that would fall first), the answer is a mix of pragmatism, fear and geopolitics.
There are strong practical reasons behind the Russian alliance with Syria. Damascus has been a regular customer for Russia’s arms dealers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Syria’s arms imports rose almost 600 percent between 2007 and 2011, with Russia supplying 72 percent. Furthermore, in an age when many arms deals are secured through the means of generous offsets and credit terms, Assad has recently been making a point of paying off his debts. Reportedly, he has already begun paying off a nearly $1-billion contract for four S-300 surface-to-air missile systems (which would be of critical value in fending off an air attack) and a $550-million order for 36 Yak-130 trainer jets (which could also be pressed into service as ground-attack aircraft). Beyond that, Russian companies Stroitransgaz and Tatneft are significant players in Syria’s energy industry. More generally, trade between the two countries grew by a dramatic 58 percent in 2011, before this crisis.
Beyond economic reasons, Damascus represents the closest thing Moscow has to an ally in the Middle East, a region it regards as of key strategic importance given the implicit challenge it feels it faces from Iran and Russia’s growing economic and political relationship with Israel. The Syrian port of Tartous is Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean.
None of this is particularly significant, though. Arms exports to Syria are useful, but by no means crucial. The genuine leverage provided in the Middle East by Damascus is minimal. Tartous has been rightly described by Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment as “gas station on the Mediterranean,” a very minor and underdeveloped outpost.
Much more important is not affection for the current regime but fear of what may follow its fall. As one Russian diplomat told me, “the United States is much better at bringing regimes down than building new ones up.” They look at Libya, at Iraq and at Afghanistan, and they fear that a sky full of cruise missiles will create a land full of fanatics. Libya may be exporting oil again, but is still torn by violence. Afghanistan is a teetering kleptocracy likely to be torn between Taliban and opium warlords after 2014. Iraq is drifting towards new waves of conflict, authoritarianism and sectarianism. Moscow at least feels that a brutal, secular regime in Damascus provided an interlocutor with whom they could deal, a degree of stability, and a bulwark against the spread of Islamic extremism. Any U.S. attack, even if notionally not directed at regime change, would seriously undermine a government that seemed to be holding its own.
After all, what would follow Assad’s well-deserved collapse? A neat transition to a stable, popular and democratic order? That doesn’t seem likely in the Kremlin’s calculus, and who can blame them? Instead, the likely outcome would be an extended period of anarchy. The beneficiaries would be Islamic extremism, Iran and Turkey — incidentally, three of the main challenges to Russian authority along its southwestern rim. Furthermore, with the increasing movement of Chechens and other North Caucasus fighters to Syria, the worry is also that a new wave of battle-hardened jihadists, perhaps supported by new recruits (as happened in the 1990s, when Al-Qaeda first discovered Chechnya), would galvanize the insurgency in Russia’s own south.
Finally, geopolitics plays a role. Under Putin, Russia sees itself as an obstacle to what it regards as the U.S.’s hegemonic aspirations to be global judge, jury and executioner. Whatever the flaws in this worldview, it is genuinely held. Often, this leads to Russia being obstructive to the point of self-defeating caricature, contributing to a pervasive view of the country being something between a petulant adolescent and a querulous has-been power that has yet to realize its day has passed. However, in Syria it sees an opportunity to articulate a role that may embarrass in the short term — especially as it stands by a regime that would gas its own people — but which in the longer term will allow it to look prescient and statesmanlike.
Moscow does not believe it can prevent the U.S. from attacking Syrian forces, any more than it could prevent the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other powers from arming and equipping anti-Assad rebels. Instead, it believes that it can show itself to be a genuinely independent nation, loyal to its friends and, if Assad falls and Syria falls into violent chaos afterwards, it can indulge in a bout of geopolitical “told you so.” In the process, Moscow hopes to head off what it sees as a growing U.S. tendency towards feeling it can and must undermine regimes it does not like.
Pragmatism, fear and geopolitics make for a powerful mix. To be sure, Syria is hardly a burning issue for the average Russian. According to a recent opinion poll, only 8 percent have been following the news from Syria with any real interest, and 51 percent of respondents support neither side, although of those who do have an opinion, more than twice as many support Assad as the rebels. About a third felt that Russia should remain neutral, 21 percent want Moscow to back Assad, and 11 percent would rather it sided with the West.
Likewise, it is not as though there is any real risk of a proxy war between Moscow and Washington over Syria, let alone any direct confrontation. Russia has very few ways of retaliating directly, and Putin has made it clear that his “position is not to back Assad and his regime in power at any price.” In a marathon press conference in December, he said that after forty years of rule by the Assad family, “the need of change is certainly on the agenda.” Indeed, the Russians can claim to have been saying this for a while: back in 2011, then-president Dmitry Medvedev warned that “a sad fate” awaited Assad unless he take steps to reform his government and pacify his people. Of course, the Syrian people are having to cope with a distinctly sadder fate.
Instead, Moscow feels it is having to make the best it can of a weak hand in a game not of its choosing — but one that it can nonetheless win in the end. Although it denies that it believes Assad’s days are numbered (when Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov said he was losing control, this was hurriedly rowed back), the Kremlin is instead preparing for the endgame: what happens after Assad falls. It has read its concerns into the record, and will no doubt remind the U.S. (and Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) of this, if and when chaos ensues. It has placed ships off the Syrian coast, not to intervene but to evacuate Russian nationals and Syrian friends if need be. It can enjoy the satisfaction of seeing even the British back away from intervention, making Washington look increasingly like the maverick warmonger. This is not, ultimately, a Moscow-Damascus axis of authoritarianism, so much as Moscow looking for a consolation prize when it loses its last Middle Eastern ally.