Woodrow Wilson Center: Deciphering Russian Policy on Syria
October 7, 2013
What Happened… and What’s Next
Joseph Dresen– Program Associate, Kennan Institute
Dr. Mark N. Katz– Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University
The events of August 21, 2013 were poised to mark an escalation in U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. Reports that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs crossed a “red-line” as defined by President Obama and warranted U.S. military involvement in the conflict. At the last minute though, after a tepid response from the U.S. Congress and public, the U.S. abandoned its plan for military action in favor of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s call for Syria to turn their chemical stockpile over to international control. This was not the first time that Russia had taken to the international stage in defense of Syria. With help from China, Russia has managed to block the UN Security Council from intervening at all in the Syrian crisis. Unlike China though, which has said they are not dedicated to the Assad regime and are simply against UN facilitated regime changes, Russia has been one of Syria’s staunchest supporters, ignoring condemnation from countries in the region and abroad, and continuing to supply the regime with weapons and aid. Media outlets have pointed to the fact that Syria is home to Russia’s only naval base outside of the old USSR- located in Tartus-and that this is driving Russia’s support. However, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s guest speaker, Prof. Mark Katz, argued that the Tartus base is, in reality, very modest, only partially staffed, and at most a refurbishing station. As such, this is not the driving factor in Russia’s support for Assad- Russia is rather moving in order to protect domestic and international interests.
Russia has had a history of military partnership with Syria, a constant buyer of Soviet weaponry after the Cold War. However, even with military sales, energy exports, and its naval base in Tartus, Syria is not Russia’s most prosperous partner in the region. Prof.Katz in fact stressed that involvement in Syria has overshadowed the progress that Russia is making in the larger Muslim world. According to Prof.Katz Russia’s true focus in the region is on Turkey, Israel, Libya, and Iraq. The trade of goods and energy between Russia and Turkey currently totals over $40 billion dollars annually, and there are talks to increase it to $100 billion in the near future; Israel hosts a large population of Russian citizens and tourists and trade between the exchanges between the two countries is only increasing; lastly, Russia is playing a big role in supplying and training new security forces in Libya and also helping restart and maximize its oil exports. Also these developments underscore Prof.Katz’s point that Russian involvement in Syria is not driven by finances or military strategy but is more an attempt to project an image of influence and strength on the global stage, something the country has lacked since the Cold War.
However, the position that Russia is currently taking is unpopular in both Syria and larger Middle East region. President Assad’s Alawite regime is a minority in Syria and doesn’t hold influence in other countries in the region. In supporting the Assad regime throughout this conflict, even in the face of almost unanimous condemnation on its chemical weapons use, Russia is hurting its image domestically and throughout the world. Ironically, Prof. Katz argued that one of the main reasons for Russia’s continued support of the Assad regime was to promote its image, as a strong and loyal ally and an opponent of extremism. This image is meant to have domestic and international impacts. Domestically Russia is facing unrest and extremist militants in some of its caucuses, most notably Chechnya. Prof.Katz believes that President Putin and the Kremlin see a direct link between the sectarian fighting in Syria and the escalating violence in its own territories, to allow conflict and dissent in one area will promote it in the other. Syria provides President Putin a platform to not only show Russian independence, in standing to the West, but also allows him to declare Russia’s values and commitment to combatting extremism, a message aimed at his own domestic dissenters.
It’s hard to see how Russia’s relationship with Syria will progress. Russia’s most recent brokering though, to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, may mark the end of its involvement in Syria. While some have said the move reestablished Russia as a power in international policy Prof. Katz argued that the move really stressed the limit of their power; it told the Assad regime “if you cross the line again, there will be nothing we can do to protect you from Western retaliations.” Prof.Katz further argued that the move signaled a desire by Russia to protect Assad’s power and a desire by the U.S. to not become militarily in the conflict. These two positions are likely to stay in place for the near future, assuming the Assad regime does not again use chemical weapons. The only possible game changer that Prof.Katz sees is a progression U.S.-Iran relations. According to Prof.Katz any development there would entail a decrease in Iran’s aid to the Assad regime, leaving Russia as its sole supporter. If Russia was left holding the bag then new developments may occur. Until then Prof.Katz urged listeners to expect much of the same going forward.