Explaining Russian Alignment with Syria

The following article originally appeared in The Antonian – a magazine published by St Antony’s College Oxford. Here, Dr Roy Allison, University Lecturer in the International Relations of Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and GB Fellow at St Antony’s College, discusses topical issues of relations between Russia and Syria.

Dr Roy Allison.  Photo courtesy of St Antony's College.

Dr Roy Allison.
Photo courtesy of St Antony’s College.

The Syrian conflict is the world’s most serious humanitarian emergency and threatens the breakdown of borders and severe regional destabilisation in the Middle East. Throughout the crisis Russia has provided Damascus with a diplomatic shield and a steady flow of armaments, despite a chorus of criticism from Western states, Turkey and most Arab states.  Moscow’s adroit diplomatic manoeuvring in September 2013 to avoid American military strikes against the Syrian regime by delivering up its chemical weapons and production facilities, similarly protects the beleaguered rule of Assad, while appealing to the determination of major powers to prevent any further chemical arms atrocities. It is difficult to see how United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118, which set out the requirements for the destruction of the Syrian chemical arms arsenal in late September, can be implemented without engaging closely with and so bolstering the security apparatus of the Syrian state, which rebel forces are seeking to overthrow. Meanwhile Russia will continue to block any Security Council threat of force against the Syrian regime, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Support for any revived threat of unilateral US military strikes against Damascus, even if there is less than full compliance with Resolution 2118, will be difficult to achieve either in the US Congress or on the wider international stage.

So the prospect of a significant Western intervention in the Syrian crisis has been pushed into the long grass. This outcome is reinforced as some common basic interests between Moscow and major Western capitals have emerged beyond the control and elimination of Syrian chemical munitions: preventing the further empowerment of al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist networks in Syria and their entrenchment in a wide ungoverned territory including eastern Syria and part of Iraq; averting the risk of a partition of Syria or a collapse of its borders, with grave consequences for neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan; as well as stemming ever greater refugee flows which threaten regional chaos. Against this background President Putin may well conclude that his resistance to what he has denigrated as Western efforts at regime change in Syria under the ‘guise’ of humanitarianism have registered some success. Certainly and sadly the focus of international attention has shifted away from the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the culpability of Syrian military forces for the most egregious violations of human rights in the conflict. The prospect of political negotiations for Syria through a revival of the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué process remains most uncertain and has been thrown further into doubt by growing disarray among the rebel factions, many of which have rejected the leadership of the exiled opposition front the Syrian National Coalition.

In the crisis diplomacy around Syria it has been puzzling to many why Moscow has remained so unyieldingly aligned with Damascus. Russian officials emphasise principles of world order the UN Charter and their support of Syrian state sovereignty vested in international law and they claim that UN enforcement action in Libya was abused in the effort to overthrow the Libyan regime and wish no repetition of this example. But this does not persuasively explain why Russia has so actively continued to support one side in a civil war in Syria – a legally dubious position despite the international recognition which Assad’s government formally still retains. There are three types of explanation which take us further.

Syrians gather in Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, demanding Russia stop supporting the Syrian regime.

Syrians gather in Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, demanding Russia stop supporting the Syrian regime.

First, some suggest that a sense of shared identity and solidarity derived from the Cold War era underpin Russian-Syrian relations, that military-security elites in particular in Moscow still view ties with Syria as an important vestige of past grandeur that can be leveraged to regional geopolitical advantage – perhaps illustrated by the chemical weapons deal which has placed Russia centre stage in the diplomacy of the region. In this sense Russia has been reluctant to break with a long-term ‘political base’ in the Middle East. Arguably also, Putin views the Russian image of being a steadfast ally as important internationally for the credibility of Russia’s other political alignments, such as with CIS Central Asian states. Secondly, some point to Russian material/economic and geopolitical interests in Syria. However, Russia’s much touted arms trade with Syria is simply too small a proportion of Russia’s total arms deliveries abroad to crucially influence policy by itself. The supply of advanced air defence systems to Damascus appears to be part of a political strategy to deter Western intervention rather than driven by commercial logic. However, Russian strategic interests in the political geometry around Syria count for more. Russia worries about the effects of a possible collapse of Shi’a Alawite rule in Syria in the teeth of a largely Sunni, Western and Gulf State supported rebellion. Moscow also suspects that the toppling of Assad may form part of a broader Western strategy for the eventual destabilisation of Iran – Damascus’s strongest regional ally and a state much more important for Russia than Syria – despite the new possibilities of Western-Iranian rapprochement since the election of President Rowhani.

Third, Russia’s Syria policy reflects anxiety about the possibility of ‘political blowback’ to domestic state order within Russia. It betrays nervousness about Russian state stability. On one hand Moscow argues that a chaotic overthrow of Assad will fuel further sectarianism in and around Syria and expand the scope for action of Sunni Islamist groupings, some of which might take up cause with the insurgency Russia confronts in the North Caucasus. Russia claims, with growing credibility, that the Syrian opposition relies heavily for its military successes on the more extreme Islamist factions with transnational agendas. This, coupled with the breakdown of state structures in Muslim lands, Russian security chiefs argue, threatens to fuel terrorism and militancy in Russian regions.

However, Putin has a deeper preoccupation: central political control in Moscow. This underlies his support for incumbent if illiberal regimes in Syria and elsewhere and his insistence on the illegality of steps towards regime change. Putin sees potential challenges to his own rule, to the political structure he presides over, if the overthrow of yet another authoritarian regime (in Syria) were to be legitimised internationally, justified on humanitarian or other grounds. This perception has been reinforced by the large scale political protests within Russia in 2012 and the Arab Spring revolts. The dangers of a highly personalised political system with a strong centralization of real political power have resonated within the Russian leadership. Therefore, boosted by the success of his chemical arms diplomacy, Putin seeks a political settlement in Syria that would retain the Assad regime essentially in place and at the same time enshrine continued Russian influence in the wider region, even ideally boost Russian global status as an ‘indispensable’ player in major international crises. But events on the ground in Syria may frustrate these goals as the civil war grinds on relentlessly and the Syrian state loses coherence or in the worst case even fragments.

Reproduced with permission from the author and St Antony’s College, Oxford.


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