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Russia's Syria Policy: On the Wrong Side of History

PDF downlaodBülent Aras*
POMEAS OP-ED, 27 March 2014

Russian diplomacy on the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria represents a significant achievement. This development provides some relief to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria. It will put an end to the terrifying mass deaths caused by chemical weapons. 

There will be fewer Syrians grievingfor their loved ones. The U.S.-Russia brokered deal marks a positive development towards regional security since, after all, the elimination of a weapon of mass destruction was at stake.

On the other hand, the idea of giving diplomacy a chance was reinforced by bringing the Assad administration to the negotiating table on the subject of the destruction of chemical weapons. Russia had achieved success in convincing the Assad administration to reach a solution through international negotiation. Russia's importance for international security was demonstrated once again.

However, as Russia's negotiating team was leaving Damascus, officials in Russia were preparing shipments of military equipment destined for Syria. Moscow is ensuring that Syria has access to "legitimate" weapons, even if it no longer has its chemical weapons arsenal. By gifting a no-cost success to the United States, Russia has decreased the pressure on Assad and increased Damascus' dependency on Moscow.

Unclear influence

The Syrian situation is not a crucial interest for Russia. Its impact derives from the fact that the Kremlin is not against Assad, but rather aligned on issues in which they will not face serious
international reactions. Russia's influence on Assad remains unclear: there has not yet arisen a situation under which this influence could be tested.

Russia has a number of vital interests, such as energy security and its sphere of influence in the former Soviet geography, which it defines as its "near abroad." Moscow tends to be fairly uncompromising across that region, and certainly inclined to take risks when necessary. On other issues, it follows a diplomacy style defined by full court press, a firm hand and high-threshold flexibility.

Regarding Russia's political style, its recent nuclear policy on Iran provides a useful guide. Moscow provided support to Iran on nuclear issues for a long time. Considering Iran's nuclear issue as a regional issue, Russia stood by Iran at the U.N. Security Council, formed a monopoly in establishing Iran's nuclear infrastructure and built a regional alliance with Tehran. When Iran's nuclear issue turned into an international problem and garnered serious international reaction, Moscow changed its position, aligning itself closer to the international community.

It does not seem likely that the international community will adopt a similar position in Syria. Therefore the possibility of a change in Russia's position in this context is fairly small. Moscow will continue to gather regional and international leverage through its policy toward Damascus. One argument is that this rigid attitude is the consequence of political trauma caused by Russia's failed trust in Western countries in Libya. Russia is not willing to make the same mistake in Syria. Although it is in the form of a fragile alliance, Russia has also succeeded in keeping China on its side.

Pursuing realpolitik

In President Putin's second term, Russia has relentlessly pursued the principles of realpolitik. In Moscow's view, this is simply known as playing by the rules of game. After all, what is important is Russia's national interests and political leverage. But the situation is different when you look at it from Damascus. Chemical weapons might be out of use, but people continue to die. The Assad government's brutal military assaults have caused 140, 000 deaths, and the tragedy of millions of refugees continues to multiply day by day.

Historically there is a thin line between international leverage and receptivity. History also harbors a scrap yard of examples where countries have failed to combine their real interests with a moral perspective. Russia's realpolitik power policy severely hurt the regional and the international conscience. It is possible to say that Western countries, led by the U.S., are actually hiding behind Russia. But this does not constitute a legitimate justification for siding with a cruel dictator who uses an organized army and fighter jets to kill
his own people. The situation here goes far beyond any responsibility to remain neutral and to refrain from interfering.

Syria will lose chemical weapons at worst if Russia's initiative of chemical weapons succeeds in the end. It will keep its military superiority against the insurgents through conventional weapons. There is no doubt that Russia will provide the military equipment and weapons that Assad needs. With their limited weaponry, the insurgents are ill-equipped to withstand the merciless attacks by Assad's fighter planes. Meanwhile Assad will continue his charade of carrying out negotiations with the international community on chemical weapons.

The people of Syria will, somehow, emerge victorious. Those who emerge from the wreckage of the destruction wrought by Assad's unstinting attacks will lay the foundations of the new Syria. It will be up to the Syrian people to decide on their attitude towards the apology of future Russian rulers with regard to Putin's current policy as they struggle against a brutal dictatorship.

The article was primarily published at Al Arabiya. The link is available here.

* Coordinator of POMEAS