By Hussain Abdul-Hussain
Russian policy on Syria might seem planned and coherent, but a closer look shows that Moscow has no imagined end-game for Syria’s unrest, and is rather improvising its stances as events unfold.
Moscow has a clear interest in the survival of the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, who is a major importer of Russia’s arms. Syria reportedly buys 10 percent of Russia’s annual arms exports at a cost of $1 billion. In Libya, Russian arms makers lost close to $4 billion in contracts with the downfall of Moammar Gaddafi. Moscow is keen to prevent a repeat in Syria.
But arms sales may not be the only motive behind Russia’s support for Assad. Perhaps Moscow fears that international intervention in Syria could emerge as an accepted model for the future. If Russians take to the streets en masse demanding an end to the long rule of their president-turned-prime-minister Vladimir Putin, now running for a third presidential term, the Kremlin might want to make sure that it can strangle any such movement without fear of the United Nations jumping on its back to protect protesters.
A third reason behind Moscow’s obstruction of the world effort to stop Assad’s brutal force against his citizens could be Russia’s self-perception as heir to the glorious Soviet empire. Since Putin’s accession to power in 2000, Moscow has always tried to show foreign policy muscle.
This posture has helped Putin awaken national chauvinism by rallying Russians around his leadership against mostly imagined foreign threats. With the Assad family being a former Soviet ally, and with western capitals supporting Assad’s opponents, Russia might have seen in Syria an opportunity to stand up to the “imperial” West by preventing the downfall of another one of Moscow’s old Arab friends and arms clients.
The Russian government has so far thrown its lot behind Assad. On Oct. 4, it exercised its veto power to kill a UN Security Council resolution that would have denounced the Syrian government.
Moscow’s initial support of Assad was based on its understanding that his forces could swiftly bring the uprising to an end. But days turned into weeks and weeks into months, during which Moscow might have concluded that Assad could be the wrong horse to back and that, instead, it should reach out to his opponents and show itself as the sponsor of peace between the two sides.
The Russian position has therefore undergone a noticeable evolution since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in mid-March. During the first weeks, Russia described the unrest as a domestic issue, calling on the world to respect Syrian sovereignty by staying away.
However, a surge in the number of deaths, standing at 5,000 by December meant that Russia could not make the Syrian crisis go away simply by claiming it a domestic issue.
Moscow realized that it should either come up with a solution to stop the bloodshed, or risk western capitals eventually imposing one. Russia therefore endorsed the Arab League initiative, which calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of the Syrian army from cities, the release of detained anti-regime activists, and the admittance of Arab observers and foreign media to verify Assad’s compliance.
Damascus said on Nov. 2 that it would accept the initiative, but failed to sign on the protocol for its implementation, forcing the league to suspend Syria’s membership nine days later. Seeing that its allies in Damascus were squandering a golden opportunity that could circumvent western intervention, Moscow circulated in mid-December a Security Council draft resolution that endorsed the initiative. By doing so, Russia moved from categorically ruling out any international intervention in Syria to attempting to shape such an effort in its favor.
The Syrian government signed on the initiative on Nov. 19 but still obstructed the admittance of Arab observers. News reports from Syria said that the regime’s forces were committing massacres against army defectors and civilians in the north.
In a sign that Moscow had grown impatient with Assad, Russia circulated on Dec.24 another Security Council draft resolution, this one employing stronger language against Assad. Feeling the Russian heat, the Syrian president reluctantly admitted the Arab Monitoring Commission, which is expected to disclose its findings by Jan. 20.
Should the Arab mission be deemed a failure, world opinion would certainly tilt in favor of UN intervention, in which case Russia would find itself alone at the UN fending off another western diplomatic offensive against Assad. Meanwhile, indicators show that Assad’s grip on power is weakening and his finances — needed to keep his military machine going — deteriorating.
In the second diplomatic showdown at the UN, expected in February, Russia might not rush to the defense of Assad and could instead come to a compromise with other world powers over his removal.
Perhaps sensing that Moscow’s pro-Assad stance could change, chief of the opposition Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Moscow in mid-November that should Assad fall, Russian interests in Syria would be “guaranteed.”
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper, Alrai. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.