The more popular narrative to explain Russia’s uncompromising support of a bloodthirsty Syria – whose draconian crack down outmatches itself one day to the next – seems to rest on two simple assumptions. First, Damascus is Moscow’s premier arms client. Second, Syria plays host to Russia’s only remaining naval stopover outside the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, the ties are mutually beneficial and significant. But they don’t fully account for the lengths to which the Kremlin has gone in recent months — vetoing two relatively benign anti-Assad resolutions in the UN Security Council (UNSC) — to protect an ally that has become nothing more or less than a liability.
The popular narrative begins to ring hollow when considering the geopolitical consequences an Assad-less Syria might have on a re-Putin-ed Russia. For starters, Moscow would risk losing tremendous influence in the Middle East, though not in obvious ways: The potential loss of a naval port and several billions of dollars in near term weapons sales would pale in comparison to the opportunity costs incurred by American or European inroads into the self-styled capital of pan-Arabism.
A recent example illustrates Russia’s fear of Western encroachment in the Mid East. By taking the lead in Libya — where Moscow also had pending arms deals — NATO countries in general and Paris, London and Washington in particular snatched up the most lucrative post-Qaddafi business contracts and, as architects of the “Friends of Libya Group,” have played instrumental roles in influencing if not shaping Libya’s reformed economic, legal and political institutions. That will pay long term dividends.
In a way, then, Moscow is indeed concerned about forfeiting billions in Syrian defense dollars. But not the six or so billion in arms sales over the next few years. The untold billions at stake should Western powers facilitate regime change and gain first mover advantage at a crossroads of the Middle East is the real concern.
What would a Middle East minus Assad look like? Iran might lose a reliable ally in the neighborhood at a time when Washington and Brussels are going to unprecedented lengths to curb or destroy its alleged nuclear weapons program. Israel, by contrast, stands to win big from the ouster of its not-so-friendly neighbor, Assad. Think breathing room from not one existential threat, but three: Iran would be hard pressed to transship arms and other support through Syria to Lebanese Hezbollah, one of the biggest thorns in West Jerusalem’s side.
A more confident Israel and a weakened Iran and Hezbollah could be a boon for the White House, which, “re-sets” aside, remains a key adversary of the Kremlin’s resurgent strongman and president-to-be. Putin still dreams of his country’s not-so-distant superpower past, and does not appear reluctant to show it — as two double-vetoes in four months plainly illustrate.
Strategic not Tactical
Russia’s actions (or reactions) in the Security Council since the NATO-led ousting of Muammar Qaddafi reflect strategic balance of power anxieties, not near-term concerns over arms deals and naval access. The West is making its move on Iran, which – despite having China and Russia to blame just as much as other permanent members of the Security Council for four separate rounds of UN sanctions since 2003 – knows that Beijing and Moscow will go no further in that direction. As French Ambassador Gerard Araud said recently, “we [the UNSC] have almost hit the nerve,” and to go any further would endanger China and Russia’s interests in Iran.
So the next time (any day now) you see Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin sticks up for his Syrian counterpart at the UN, and wonder how he keeps a straight face, know that the diplomat – and his strongman boss – is looking decades into the future. It seems they are prepared to save the Middle East from more West no matter what the cost.
Photo: Reuters 2012 – Demonstrators protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Kafranbel near Idlib February 23, 2012. The placard reads, “Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says to Syria’s Assad, My cuddly murderer of his people”.