February 1st, 2012
05:10 PM ET

Russia's self-defeating game in Syria

Editor's Note: Jeffrey Mankoff is an adjunct fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City. 

By Jeffrey Mankoff - Special to CNN

Russia’s opposition to a new U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down should hardly come as a surprise. Reflecting a series of calculations about the Middle East as well as relations with the West, Moscow has staunchly backed Assad throughout the popular unrest roiling Syria over the past ten months. Yet by repeatedly stepping in to protect Assad from the wrath of his own people and his Middle Eastern neighbors, Russia risks not only a standoff with the West, but the loss of what influence it has left in the region.

Russian support for the Syrian regime - founded when Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez seized power in 1970 - is still shaped in part by Cold War-era considerations. Hafez al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party (like its cousin in Iraq) portrayed itself as a force for socialist-style modernization. More importantly, it was staunchly anti-American and anti-Israeli, and quickly turned to the USSR as its principal source for weapons and military advisors.

Those relations continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms transfers, estimates the value of Russian arms sales to Syria at $162 million per year in both 2009 and 2010. The total value of Syrian contracts with the Russian defense industry is likely more than $4 billion. Russia also leases a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, giving the Russian navy its only direct access to the Mediterranean, and Moscow its only remaining military base outside the former Soviet Union. Moscow fears that Assad’s fall would jeopardize both its lucrative arms contracts and its access to Tartus.

Despite the end of the Cold War, Moscow’s ties to Damascus also remain a bargaining chip in relations with the United States. The Middle East and North Africa Department in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains a bastion of old Arabists, many of whom continue to view the region through the prism of a strategic rivalry with Washington. Even those who do not value Assad primarily as a counterweight to U.S. influence see partnership with Damascus as ensuring Russia a seat at the table as the region’s future is being shaped, above all through the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, and has long sought to host an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Moscow. Though its influence throughout the Middle East has waned since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow argues that its ability to talk to anti-Western governments in the region (including those of both Iran and Syria) means that it must remain a participant in the settlement process.
Russian hostility to U.N. action on Syria also stems from longstanding opposition to foreign intervention to bring about regime change - especially when led or sponsored by the United States. Russia’s leaders support an international order based on non-interference in other states’ internal affairs and the leading role of the U.N. Security Council, where Russia remains a veto-wielding member. Moscow consequently believes the international community has no standing to tell governments how to behave domestically, as long as they do nothing to threaten international peace and security, a determination only the Security Council can make.

Over Yugoslavia in 1999 and Iraq in 2003, Russia vetoed U.S. attempts to gain Security Council authority for military action, only to see Washington bypass the U.N. and go to war anyway. As then-Russian President Vladimir Putin argued in a notorious speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, the U.S. was promoting “an almost uncontained hyper use of force…that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” It thus sees U.S.-sponsored regime change as a bigger threat to stability in the Middle East than Assad’s ongoing crackdown.

True, Moscow abstained on the Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011. It argues though (somewhat disingenuously), that it did not agree to the subsequent bombing of Libyan targets and direct military support for the anti-Gadhafi rebels. More importantly, Moscow had little at stake in Libya, and decided not to take a stand on behalf of the mercurial Gadhafi - even though Putin and others supported such a step (the Libyan resolution produced one of the few open conflicts between Putin and his protégé, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev). With Putin again calling the shots in Moscow and discussion at the U.N. now focusing on Syria rather than the more peripheral Libya, Russia is showing much less flexibility.

Though Moscow’s defense of Assad can be explained from the perspective of Russian security interests, the risks of it backfiring are growing. Assad’s regime appears increasingly precarious, as protests have spread across the country and segments of the Syrian military are turning against him. The Arab League, which recently withdrew its observer mission from Syria, has also called on Assad to step down. Arab League backing for the rebels was a critical factor in Moscow’s decision to abstain on the Libya resolution, making clear that it was not just the United States that supported Gadhafi’s ouster. By bucking the Arab League on Syria, Moscow is jeopardizing its relations with governments across the Middle East, which since the Arab Spring are increasingly responsive to public opinion.

Moscow is right that without Assad it might lose its arms contracts and naval base in Syria. Yet by quixotically clinging to Assad as his grip on power slips, Moscow risks making that fear a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assad’s successors will not forget Russia’s role in prolonging Syria’s suffering. Apart from the mounting numbers of Assad’s Syrian victims, it is Russia itself that will pay the highest price for propping up Assad to the bitter end.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jeffrey Mankoff.

Post by:
Topics: Russia • Syria

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, Russia is betting on the wrong horse. Despite the 200.000 men in his forces, Assad can't fight against the people. The Kremlin is putting its future relationship with Syria at stake. Regimes come and go and the people will always stay.

    February 1, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Self defeating or not, at least the Russians are doing the right thing about Syria. The so-called "Western Democracies" are hoping to get their paws on that country, too. There is no end to their greed. Besides, it's quite dubious that Bashar al-Assad is as unpopular as the right-wing media portends him to be!!!

      February 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
      • Marine5484

        You nailed it again, George. I get so sick and tired of all these other people vomiting their right-wing ignorance on this web page. Have these people no shame???

        February 2, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
      • Scott

        Russia is not doing the right thing regarding Syria. They are arming one side of a civil war (precisely what they lectured the West about with regards to Libya). Any blood that is shed in Syria using Russian arms in on Putin's hands.

        February 4, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  2. JAL

    The oppressed deserve true inspiration.

    February 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  3. 7FBTK

    "Russia also leases a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, giving the Russian navy its only direct access to the Mediterranean, and Moscow its only remaining military base outside the former Soviet Union. Moscow fears that Assad’s fall would jeopardize both its lucrative arms contracts and its access to Tartus."

    (1) Indeed, Russia leases a "naval facility" in Tartus, but it is far from a "military base." There are about a dozen or so permanently assigned Russian naval servicemen there, but no permanent Russian naval ship presence. After PM-56 departed Tartus last month, there currently is no other Russian Navy ship in Tartus. The "naval facility" is a "basing point" used to provide short-term maintenance and logistics support to Russian Navy ships operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Now that the Kuznetsov task group has left the Mediterranean Sea, there are no other naval ships to support.

    (2) Aside from the lucrative arms deals, the real value of the Syria-Russia relationship is in the intelligence sharing agreements and joint use of intelligence collection facilities inside Syria.

    February 1, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  4. RUSSIA=CHINA=IRAN=SYRIA-EVIL

    THOSE THUGS COMMUNIST PEACE OF SHI....T SHOULD BE DEALT WITH, ALL FORCES IN SYRIA SHOULD FIGHT RUSSIAN TROOPS AND ATTACK THEIR INTEREST IN THE MIDDLEAST AND THE WORLD THEN DEAL WITH BASHAR AL KALB AND THOSE IRANIAN THUGS WHO ALL SUPPORT HEZBOLLAH AND OTHER TERRORISTS LIKE NORI AL MALEKI OF IRAQ.

    February 1, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Reply
    • Truth hurts

      You forgot to put the biggest evil of all (US), in that big list of countries!

      February 2, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
      • lisa leodoro

        whats happening in iran, israel and russia. Is prophesized in Ezekiel 38 and 39. Mog is Russia, Persia is Iran.Love is the answer. what Other country in the World comes to free the oppressed against inhuman leaders, dictator, It is every one of us that should do what we can to help one another because it's the right thing to do. peace brings peace, war brings war . It changes the young people we send to war. I would rather die knowing that i died fighting the Good Fight. Love.peace & Forgiveness can win any conflict.

        February 27, 2012 at 4:10 am |
  5. longlivefreedom

    Russia always has and always will be the enemy of freedom. The blood of Syria is on the hands of those drunken, half-civilized barbarians in Moscow.

    February 1, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Do you honestly believe all that right-wing bla-bla-bla you posted above? If you do, then you're only displaying your own ignorance here. In that case, you should be ashamed of yourself is all that I can say here!

      February 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply
      • RANGER

        good answer brother i just must add that people who newer left US or they towns for that matter should not talk about world politics especially after listening FOX NEWS AND THAT IDIOT GLEN BECK

        February 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Paul

      Wow, talk about ignorant racist nonsense. Such hateful idiocy invalidates any possible perspective you could have on the matter at hand, and most any other matter probably.

      February 2, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  6. Andrey

    Liberals are happy with their two dimensional image of the world. They do not care what actually happens and who wants what – they do not need to look, because they already know. They already know what people want – they want to follow them! They know who is good, and who is evil. They serve their own religion, which has its dogmas set in stone once and forever. Blind priests of rotten man-eating cult. Always hungry for war and human blood, looking for subduing more countries to their demoncracy, destroying other people lives and culture, bombing and killing, sending somebody else to fight their wars – for their false gods always demands more! Go ****** yourself!

    February 2, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
    • Nathan G.

      You have got to be joking. Please tell me you were intentionally distorting to poke fun. I mean... liberals two dimensional? Liberal, by its very nature, means free-thinking. Conservative, by contrast, allows for less free-thinking. Conservatives have been painting the world in black and white for centuries – it's liberals who splash color across the page whenever they can. The last two "Wars" (in quotes, because they are armed conflicts, not wars – only congress can declare war) were initiated by a conservative administration. The idea of regime change was a conservative idea. The idea that torture is not torture under US law if it saves lives is a conservative idea. Everything you described screams conservative with ear-bleeding volume. Get your definitions and history right before you just spew inaccuracies.

      February 3, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply
      • Andrey

        Sorry, I would tell you what I think – but CNN does not let me to. I do not know, it might be the words I think, or my previous post got through to them. But I do not care that much. ************************************************** brother!

        February 3, 2012 at 9:46 am |
      • Andrey

        Some people believe that Antichrist walks the Earth. I do not know. But if he did – he for sure would be a liberal!

        February 3, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  7. Ed

    All these corrupt regimes got to go. People of the middle east realizing that all these so called leaders were doing nothing for the best interest of their countries. They are filling their swiss bank accounts while pointing fingers at US and Israel to divert attention.

    February 3, 2012 at 6:29 am | Reply
  8. lubnani

    everybody knows that big countries interests drive their politics , but to support a regime who slaughter, torture and imprison children to intimidate its people is below even the mobster

    February 3, 2012 at 9:00 am | Reply
  9. Luchik

    Check out an analysis of all major presidential candidates of Russia here: nofilternews.com

    February 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply

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