Analysis / Reviews

What is Russia hanging onto in Syria?

Dr Roy Allison spoke at St Antony’s College on 25 February 2013 in an attempt to explain Russia’s reluctance to support intervention of any kind in Syria. The following is a summary of that talk, reproduced with the kind permission of the speaker.

Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia

Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia

Most analyses of the Russian position on Syria start from the assumption that then-President Dmitri Medvedev was caught out by the Western powers in Libya. According to this assertion, the Russians gave tacit approval for the imposition of a no-fly zone by virtue of abstention on UN Resolution 1973, but bitterly resented the mission-creep that followed.

In fact, Medvedev and Putin were almost certainly alert to the likelihood that the West would not be satisfied until Gaddafi was removed from power. The apparent divisions within the regime may have been genuinely different policy positions, but also represented a division of labour – Medvedev appealing to international public opinion, Putin to the domestic.

In contrast, Russia’s position on Syria has been consistent throughout; there will be no direct intervention. Instead, Russia has urged the international community to be patient and to coax the Assad regime into offering concessions, even as that scenario looks less and less likely. The official stance is that the Syrian National Council does not look like a government in waiting, and that the breakup of Syria on ethnic lines or the radicalisation of the country would be disastrous.

Many of the underlying factors often attributed to Russia’s approach to foreign policy are overstated in the Syrian case. Russia has not had a particularly friendly relationship with Assad, and while interests-based pragmatism plays a role, the share of Russian arms exports that go to Syria (around 5%) does not seem critical. Syria’s importance as an gas producer is declining, and although it is probably the country in which Russia’s Middle-Eastern interests are most concentrated, the costs of isolation in the international community may be more than the benefits of keeping Syria.

Instead, Russia’s relationship with Syria is conditioned by its approach to the War on Terror. The Muslim Brotherhood is listed as a terrorist organisation by Russia, and efforts to insulate the CIS region from the effects of the Arab Spring were undertaken promptly. While a prolonged conflict in Syria might be seen from a Western vantage point as increasing the threat of radicalisation, from Moscow it has the advantage of distracting Islamic fundamentalists from fermenting revolution in the Caucasus. Ironically, however, the longer Russia supports the Alawite-Shi’a regime in Syria, the greater the risk of Sunni Islamist groups targeting the North Caucasus.

Russia is therefore unlikely to change its stance in the short to medium-term, although events on the ground might mean a sudden change in stance. In general, Russia is proud of its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and considers international law an important restriction on the capacities of other states. Taking a difficult stance is therefore unlikely to prove too much of a problem for the leadership, although it will be careful not to let its isolation become a permanent feature.

Dr Roy Allison is the author of Russia, the West, and Military Intervention, due for release in May 2013.

A video from the press conference between Foreign Ministers Hague and Lavrov can be viewed here.


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