Fears of Islamist Expansion Prompt Russian Support for Assad

Article Summary
According to Sarkis Naoum, Russian concern over the spread of political Islam make it unlikely to curtail support for the secular Assad regime - that is, unless the West is willing to accept some “extreme” conditions in return. In an election year, however, the Obama administration would be hard pressed to submit to Moscow’s demands, he argues.

In spite of the arm-wrestling between the United States and Russia - as revealed by their opposing positions on the Syrian crisis - there are ongoing contacts and consultations between the two [states] to reach a settlement that would stop the escalation of violence in Syria. [The two parties are discussing options] to clear the path for peaceful change that would lay the foundations for a democratic system, in place of [the Assads’] four-decades-old, sectarian, one-man dictatorship.

In Washington, American observers of developments in Syria and their administration's position [on the ongoing crisis there] do not expect these consultations to lead to a principled understanding [of the conflict] or to a detailed settlement. Neither Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor President Barack Obama can give Russia what it is asking for in return for "handing over" the regime of  President Bashar al-Assad. One of the main reasons for this are the 2012 US presidential elections which will take place in November. Obama is seeking a second term, and his candidacy will prevent him from submitting to extreme Russian interests that conflict with those of the US. So far, American interests lie in supporting the Arab Spring in its Syrian phase.

[The US’ position towards the Syrian regime has become especially clear] as the majority of Syrians have demonstrated that they are determined [to see] change despite the repression and violence they face. [Meanwhile,] Assad's regime has made it clear that it is determined to survive without seriously altering its domestic and regional policies, which have been very harmful to US interests.

Any retreat by Obama [on the Syrian issue] would cost him the votes of those who do not yet consider his rivals presidential material. It would also cost him votes from citizens who have yet to see employment or the economy significantly improve. And those voters know that the party that caused their economic problems is the one whose candidates are trying to remove Obama from the White House.

In short, American analysts identify Russia as a source of great concern for Obama. Obama is constantly evaluating Russia’s position on the Syrian crisis to see if it might one day be able to give up on the Assad regime were its collapse to be brought about by factors independent of actions taken by Washington, Moscow or even Assad himself. The analysts point out that in reality this strategy does not suit Obama, and does not fit with what Syria expects from its Russian allies.

Why does Russia support  Assad's regime so fervently?

The American observers offer several responses to this question. First, Russian officials are very concerned that radical (Sunni) Islamists are benefiting from the Arab Spring. They fear that the Islamists will replace the collapsed regimes. The Russians are concerned by the Islamists’ radical and expansionist religious ideologies, even though some of these movements have taken steps to establish their moderation in the countries where they have risen to power. [Russia] sees their attempts as so far unconvincing.

Second, demographic estimates indicate that somewhere between the years 2040 and 2050, nearly 50 percent of all Russian inhabitants will be Muslim - the vast majority of them Sunni, like the Islamic currents sweeping into power in the Arab world and beyond.

Third, Russia fears that Islamic fundamentalist regimes in the Muslim world, built on the ruins of regimes once hostile to fundamentalist Islam, will encourage separatist tendencies by Muslims in Russia and its immediate vicinity. Russia fears that these regimes will provide direct support to [Russian separatists].

Fourth, Russia is determined to maintain a good relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Above all, it sees Iran as its first line of defense. Iran is also providing Russia with serious help in fighting the Islamic fundamentalists and militants moving into [Russia] and its neighboring countries. Iran does so because it is convinced that Russia is doing all it can to prevent the collapse of the Islamic regime [in Tehran]. Finally, Russia is convinced that supporting Iran and its allies in the region - primarily the Assad regime in Syria - is of vital and strategic importance.

Are Russian rulers mistaken in their calculations?

Found in: united states, us presidential elections, us-russian relations, us-russian negotiations on syria, us, unsc, syrian demographics, syrian crisis, syrian, russian involvement syrian crisis, russian support for iran, russian, russia, rise of political islam, political islam, muslims in russia, muslims, islamists in eastern europe, islamists in asia minor, islamists, hillary clinton, global politics, barack obama, assad regime, assad

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