The Russian defense think tank CAST has produced a new report on Russian interests in Syria, by Mikhail Barabanov and Ruslan Aliev. This report largely supports my recent contention that while Russia has significant material interests in Syria, they are not the main reason for its support of the Assad regime. Let me first address what the report says about Russian motivations. Tomorrow, I’ll address the part of the report that spells out Russian material interests in Syria, since CAST provides some interesting new information on this topic.
One thing that the report notes at the outset is that there is a widespread consensus in Russia on support for the Assad regime. This includes not just political leaders, but also most experts and the public as well. The authors describe the Russian position as a strong consensus to defend Russian interests and limit Western willfulness. Of course, this just begs the question of what are Russian interests in this case.
The authors mention that Putin may have some sympathy for Assad as a fellow authoritarian leader facing internal protests that have Western support. But they judge that Putin is too pragmatic and opportunistic to allow such considerations to affect Russian policy.
They argue instead that the greatest role in determining Russian policy is played by the elite and expert consensus that Syria must not be lost, as Assad’s defeat would mean the loss of Russia’s last client and ally in the Middle East. Syria is seen in some quarters as one of the last symbolic remnants of Russia’s superpower status. For supporters of this view, Western intervention in Syria would be seen as the destruction of one of the few remaining symbols of Russia’s great power status.
Barabanov and Aliev then argue that this view is support by skepticism about the results of the Arab spring in general and the possible outcome of the Syrian revolution in particular. Russian elites believe that the Arab spring has destabilized the Middle East and opened the door for Islamist forces to take power. As they see it, only secular authoritarian regimes such as that of Assad can counter the rise of Islamist forces. The strong support being given by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebels only deepens Russian suspicions in this regard, given Russian beliefs about past Saudi efforts to export “wahhabism” to the North Caucasus and Central Asia.
Finally, Russian dislike for unilateral Western interventionism plays a role as well, augmented by Russian views that Western powers used the potential of a humanitarian crisis in Benghazi to push through a UN Security Council resolution authorizing Western intervention in Libya that was then cynically interpreted in a way that allowed Western powers to overthrow the Gaddhafi regime.
The authors conclude by noting that the Syrian situation thus combines all the phobias and complexes of Russian politics and public opinion. What is actually happening in Syria thus plays second fiddle to Russian perceptions about Russia’s role in the international system and pathologies related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent decline.
All of this is broadly in line with my recent memo on this topic, so I’m naturally quite sympathetic to the argument in the report. I put more emphasis in my analysis on Russia’s role in the international community versus concern about Islamism and regional stability, but these are relatively fine distinctions that don’t really change the overall point: Russia is not backing Assad because of its commercial relationship or desire to maintain a military outpost there. It is backing Assad because it perceives that Assad’s downfall would have serious and long-lasting negative repercussions for Russia’s position in the Middle East and in the world, as well as for regional stability in the Middle East. This makes it far less likely that Russia would be willing to change its position in exchange for concessions on other material issues.