Russia’s Syrian Policy, Now and Next

Article Summary
The Director of Turkey’s ORSAM think tank discusses the contours of Russia’s approach to the crisis in Syria and its reasons for supporting the Assad regime. He suggests numerous ways in which this policy could shift according to developments, arguing that success or failure in Syria could dictate whether Russia regains its role as world power.

We are on the eve of the Syrian uprising's one-year anniversary. The opposition aspires to topple the Assad regime and the Baath Party rule, while demanding a new constitution that would guarantee the rights and liberties of the Syrian people.  After the regime’s excessive use of force, it is clear that a change of regime is necessary in Syria.

Though the Syrian regime is isolated and at an impasse, there is no change in Moscow’s Syrian policy. Russia seems to be shielding the Syrian regime from the West. Russia will continue to block anti-Syrian resolutions from the Security Council that could result in a military intervention. In fact Sergei Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, has stated that “the Western assessments of the results of the vote in the  Security Council on the Syria resolution sound… improper, somewhere on the verge of hysteria."

Moscow actively supports the Arab League initiative, accepted in November 2011, which aims to “eliminate violence regardless of where it comes from.” Lavrov also said that “a resolution should contain not just slogans, but also precise steps for how they should be fulfilled.” Moscow suggested adding certain provisions to urge the Syrian opposition to “distance itself from extremist groups” and “withdraw the armed paramilitaries from the cities” to the UN resolution. “Both items were completely rejected by those who prepared the resolution,” said Lavrov.

Moscow hopes to solve the Syrian crisis through dialogue with the people without the use of force. For this reason it urges for necessary reforms and an end to violence. Russia is against any kind of international intervention and believes that the exclusion of dialogue during this process would turn Syria into a second Libya.

According to Moscow, “the opposition doesn’t have a constructive approach. Their only demand is removing Assad. All these incidents are part of a larger situation, called the Arab Spring. The aim is to topple the regime and then look forward. Arab revolutions will not bring stability to the region. Only those pursuing a policy of ‘controlled chaos’ would benefit from this situation. Yet to what extent can the chaos be controlled?” Moscow claims that its Syrian policy should not be reduced to arms trading or the historical good relations [between Russia and Syria] that hark back to the days of the USSR. Moscow claims that there are strong historical and cultural ties between these two countries, and Syria is an important center of Orthodox Christianity in the Middle East.

Moscow can’t be so naïve as to believe in the goodwill of the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, with the instincts of the leader of a global bloc, it is determined to defend its most important Middle Eastern ally until the end. However, should military intervention become a reality, Russia does not want to be on the losing side. Therefore, Russian-trained Syrian elite could opt to sacrifice Assad in order to preserve Alawite rule and prevent a military intervention. The Syrian regime’s last card might be launching a war against Israel for the Golan Heights. In this case, Syria assumes that it will be backed by Russia and Iran. Additionally it could unite the Syrian nation against the common enemy.

There is currently a heated debate is underway among Russian intellectuals, over whether Russia is still a global power or [merely] a regional one. The outcome of Russia’s Syria policy may just settle the matter definitively.

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