When Vladimir Putin first came to power over a decade ago, he launched a foreign policy initiative to improve Russia’s relations with and influence in the countries of the Middle East, which had languished during the Yeltsin era. By 2010, this initiative had succeeded dramatically. With the active involvement of Putin himself, both through visiting several Middle Eastern countries as well as receiving their leaders in Moscow, Russia had established good working relations with all the major actors in the Middle East: anti-American Muslim governments (Iran and Syria) as well as pro-American ones (such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar) and even American-installed ones (Iraq and Afghanistan); Israel as well as Fatah and even Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, Russia had good relations with every government and most major opposition movements, with the notable exception of al Qaeda (which did not want good relations with anyone except for movements similar to itself).
Since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, however, much of what the previous decade of Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East accomplished has either been reversed or put in jeopardy. Russia’s continued support for Syria’s brutal minority Alawite regime in particular has resulted in the rise of popular animosity toward Russia among Sunnis in the Arab world, Turkey, and elsewhere. Why, then, has Moscow backed the Assad regime in Syria so strongly?
More than anything else, this appears to be the result of Putin’s conviction that this is the right thing to do—both in foreign policy terms and in Russian domestic political terms.
Russia as a Great Power
Putin has devoted considerable energy into reasserting Russia’s role as a great power, which declined markedly under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
While Putin managed to improve Russian relations with the governments of the Middle East, Bashar al-Assad is Moscow’s last remaining real ally in the Arab world. If he falls, then, Moscow will have no close allies there.
And as the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin has noted, “Russia’s stance on Syria is based, above all, on its leader’s largely traditional view of the global order.” Keeping Assad in power is Moscow’s way of ensuring that it maintains some influence in the Middle East.
Further, Moscow anticipates that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria that will be anti-Russian as well as anti-Western. Moscow, then, sees the West as having an interest in seeing that this does not happen—even if not all Western leaders recognize this.
And this concern about the rise of Sunni radicals in Syria feeds into Moscow’s concern about their possible rise in the Muslim regions of Russia as well as in Central Asia. Some might argue that local grievances on the part of Russian and Central Asian Muslims may account more for the rise of radicalism among them, and that outside jihadist forces do not need the Assad regime in Syria to fall in order to help them. But this is not how the Putin administration sees things.
There are other factors encouraging Russian support for the Assad regime:
The Obama Administration’s clear unwillingness to become militarily involved in Syria or provide much support to the opposition has given a greater degree of freedom for Moscow to support Assad, and can be seen in Moscow as an indication that Washington, too, fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to the rise of a radical Sunni regime in Syria.
President Obama’s threat of a military strike at Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents in August 2013 was a departure from this pattern. But Obama’s seeking Congressional authorization, Congress’s obvious unwillingness to grant it, and Obama’s quick acceptance of the Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control all showed Moscow (and many others) that Obama still does not want to intervene.
There is also the Israel factor. Despite the Assad regime’s hostility toward Israel, alliance with Iran, and support for Hezbollah, Moscow understands that Israel also fears that the downfall of Assad will lead to a far more hostile regime in Damascus. Moscow sees Israel as an ally in urging restraint on Washington.
Further, despite the Turkish and Arab publics’ hostility toward Russian support for Assad, Moscow’s ties with Turkey and most Arab governments have not suffered notably. Russian-Turkish trade in particular is booming, and Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seem to have agreed to disagree on Syria.
The new military government in Egypt has soured on the Syrian opposition, and so this is not something that divides it from Moscow.
And, of course, Moscow and the Shi’a-led government in Iraq (with which Russian economic ties have grown) are basically on the same side in Syria.
Indeed, Moscow’s policy toward Syria has not appreciably damaged Russian relations with most Middle Eastern governments—with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Moscow sees these two as supporters of radical Sunni elements not just in Syria, but also elsewhere in the Arab world, Central Asia, and inside Russia itself. (For their part, Riyadh and Doha see Russia as allying with their Shi’a opponents in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.) Saudi and Qatari actions—or perhaps more accurately, Moscow’s interpretation of their actions—have only served to intensify Moscow’s desire to prevent the violent downfall of the Assad regime at the hands of Sunni radical forces.
Achieving Russian Goals in the Middle East
How likely is the achievement of Russian goals in Syria?
Moscow clearly wants to prevent Western intervention in Syria similar to what occurred in Libya. And this goal appears likely to be met—not because of Russian ability to prevent it but because of the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to undertake it. But while the West is unlikely to act to bring down the Assad regime, the war there is continuing with no end in sight.
Moscow’s preferred outcome to this conflict is similar to that which former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad achieved in 1982, the Algerian military achieved in the 1990’s, and what Putin and the Kadyrov clan accomplished in Chechnya: the defeat of the Islamist opposition and the restoration of state security service control.
Yet even without Western intervention or major support for the opposition, this outcome appears highly unlikely to be achieved in Syria now. The Assad regime may not be ousted, but the war is likely to continue on indefinitely despite Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government. Moscow, then, is stuck in something of a quagmire there.
Further, Russia is not in a strong position to bring about a negotiated end to the conflict. It may be that nobody else is either. But if a settlement to the conflict is to occur, it will probably require heavy involvement on the part of the U.S., Europe, Turkey, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Israel may also play an important, albeit very quiet, role. Should such an effort succeed, the influence of what are now the Assad regime’s adversaries will probably increase in Syria while that of its current supporters—including Russia—will probably decrease.
The recently increased possibility of an Iranian-American rapprochement could also complicate Russia’s Syria policy. If such a rapprochement occurs, one element of it might well be Tehran reducing or even ending its support for Assad. If this occurs, Moscow could find itself either virtually alone in supporting Assad, or playing little role in an Iranian-American agreement concerning Syria.
If, on the other hand, Iranian-American relations remain hostile and Iranian support for Assad continues, Moscow may not be in a position to effectively pressure Assad into making any concessions for resolving the conflict if he thinks that he can survive just with the support of Iran and Hezbollah.
Thus, while Russia can help the Assad regime avoid being overthrown, it is not in a strong position to end the war either through helping Assad crush his enemies or providing the requisite incentives and disincentives for a successful conflict resolution effort.
Further, just because Moscow has been able to maintain relatively good relations up to now with most Sunni-led Middle Eastern governments despite popular opposition inside these countries for Russian support to Assad does not mean that Moscow will be able to continue doing so indefinitely. As the recent public outcry in Ukraine over President Yanukovich bowing to Russian pressure not to sign an association agreement with the European Union shows, Putin cannot expect other authoritarian leaders to be as successful as he has been (up to now) in ignoring public opinion.
Finally, if radical Islamist forces grow stronger inside the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus and Volga regions of Russia, and/or in Central Asia, then the fate of Assad—whether it is win, lose, or draw—will be of less concern for the Kremlin than dealing with what will be far more urgent matters.
Mark N. Katz is Professor of Government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virgina. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website, www.marknkatz.com.