Russia in Syria: a win-win situation?

Moscow’s pragmatic calculations in backing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad

Ramesh Thakur

International relations, National security | Australia, The World

14 October 2015

Russia is perfectly entitled to intervene in Syria to protect its interests – the US-led West is not the anointed ruler of the world, argues Ramesh Thakur.

The major Western powers, blinded perhaps by their intense dislike of particular leaders, seem incapable of assessing self-interest rationally. Russia’s military intervention in Syria should be a win-win situation: either Moscow cleans up the virulent jihadist mess created partly by non-stop Western meddling in affairs they do not understand, or else strategic rival Russia gets trapped in a quagmire. Given the complexities and potential risks of military entanglement, for four years Russia’s Syrian policy was described by a Russian Middle East expert as: ‘in a race across a minefield it is wise to let other runners overtake you’. Russia now owns that minefield.

The US-led West is not the anointed ruler of the world nor the sole judge of the legality and legitimacy of its own and everyone else’s behaviour. In a world that is better educated than ever before and globally interconnected, and one in which power is leaching from the West to key countries among the rest, double standards in international behaviour will become increasingly less sustainable.

At West Point on 28 May 2014, President Barack Obama insisted: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it.” In his speech to the UN General Assembly on 24 September, Obama affirmed: “all of us – big nations and small – must meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms.” Barely five months apart, the two statements are not compatible – no country that reserves the right to use military force unilaterally is committed to obeying global norms. Indeed the second criticised Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine to defend its core interests.

Nor do Westerners have a divine dispensation to decide who are the good and bad guys, which groups can be targets of air strikes and which country is allowed to keep an undeclared nuclear arsenal and which must never be permitted to get the bomb.

Russia is not as easily intimidated now as it was in Kosovo in 1999 and President Vladimir Putin refuses to listen any longer to Washington’s fables and London’s fairy tales. Mark Twain supposedly said God created war so Americans could learn geography. A cursory glance at the map shows Syria is much closer to Russia than to the US. Russia’s military capacity to protect its interests in the Middle East would be vastly more difficult if Crimea had been detached from its control last year after a Western backed putsch toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian but elected president.

Moscow’s pragmatic calculations on backing Syria’s President Bashar a-Assad include stopping the export of jihadist extremism to its own regions like Chechnya, arms sales to client regimes, a Russian naval supply base at Tartus and fears of a loss of international credibility if an ally is abandoned under pressure from abroad. The Sunni–Shia domestic and regional divide is also important. The Saudi Arabia and Turkey-led Sunni crescent is firmly pro-Western and indifferent to Russia. Syria is a key Russian bulwark against US interests in the Middle East. Therefore Moscow has little to lose in regional relations by backing Syria.

Like Obama in domestic US politics, Putin too is vulnerable to internal critics from the right for signs of weakness in dealings with the West and concerns over the possible north-eastward flow of Islamist instability. He is not going to lose popularity by pointing the finger of blame at Western intelligence and special forces for chaos around Russia’s periphery and in the Middle East. Moscow (and Beijing) have vetoed several draft UN Security Council resolutions since 2011. A veto is a risk-free assertion of Russian boldness, independence and defiance and a useful reminder that Russia still matters, if only as a spoiler.

Image by Freedom House on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom/6816657081

Image by Freedom House on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom/6816657081

Self-deluding fantasy notwithstanding, hardline Islamists quickly took over the anti-Assad insurgency that had begun as a genuinely popular and peaceful uprising in 2011 and was crushed by brute force. If Westerners had intervened during the last four years with boots on the ground and left behind a broken Syria to match the destroyed fabrics of governance in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, Moscow would have been free of the taint of having triggered the chaos and bloodbath. Earlier this year many US intelligence analysts let it be known they were unhappy at facts and analyses being cherry-picked to fit the administration’s upbeat narrative regarding ISIS gains and losses.

To recall the pragmatic wisdom of China’s late strongman Deng Xiaoping, the cat’s colour does not matter so long as it catches the mice. A Xinhua commentary on 15 September noted that ‘The main sources of today’s refugees – Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan – are targets of US intervention, which led to devastation, chaos, deteriorating domestic security and extensive displacements’. In columnist Hu Yao’s view, the US should be held ‘accountable for having destabilized these countries’ and ‘leaving them in a hopeless mess’.

Peace will remain elusive in Iraq and Syria until ISIS is defeated. If the price of Syrian and Middle Eastern stabilisation is the survival of Assad as a secular dictator, is that really such a bad outcome compared to the anarchy unleashed in Iraq and Libya by the democracy and human rights-promoting West that has left these countries as dangerous wastelands?

Like Yogi Berra, when he comes to a fork in a Middle Eastern road, Obama believes in taking it. Where the West has vacillated between trying to force Assad’s departure and resisting the spread of jihad, Moscow has been clear-eyed and hard-headed: the top goal is to ‘defeat, degrade and destroy’ (an Obama mantra) the jihadist threat for which Assad is a necessary partner. Moscow has even urged the West to make common cause on this. Recalling Churchill, the Americans are not done yet with exhausting all other options.

As US politician Patrick Buchanan asked in his column on 17 September, a collapse of the Assad regime ‘would result in a terrorist takeover, the massacre of thousands of Alawite Shiites and Syrian Christians, and the flight of millions more refugees into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — and thence on to Europe. Putin wants to prevent that. Don’t we?’ Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who says she prefers to ‘buttonhole’ Putin rather than ‘shirtfront’ him as former PM Tony Abbott famously threatened to do, has been ahead of the curve among Western counterparts in answering that question.

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One Response

  1. Samotus says:

    What kind of interest have Russia in Syria? Economic? Not at all, Russia itself is raw material suppliers to the West, oil and gas, depends entirely on western payments. Security? Jihadist way to Russia is through Turkey and Caucasus republics in continuous turmoil. Immigration – standard of living, social support is much weaker in Russia then in any Near East country. They are Russians who migrate to EU countries for job and better life opportunities. Only reason is internal – Russia is still in process of social and economic collapse. Crimea, Ukrainian affairs, now Syria are substitutes for Russians to show strength of their own country notwithstanding to the fact that standard of life is low and worsening. So Moscow elite is following the steps of their gerontologist rulers of 80th XX century – straight to the Afghanistan trap. For the world it means there is no reasonable partner looking for solutions solving problems of their country, only few interested to be at the top at any price.

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