By Laura Rufalco, Trainee, GREMMO.
Having Russian and Iranian support was what allowed Assad to resist the rebels’ offensive that deeply divided Syria in the past three years. From the beginning of the civil war, Russia and China where the most important Syrian ally in the UN, vetoing any resolution against Assad. Russian support to Assad is not only political, but also military: the country sends to Syria a significant quantity of armory that allows Assad to be stronger on the battlefield, having therefore no need to negotiate with his opponents. This is one of the reasons of the Russian support for Assad’s Syria, the amount of money they are making out of this war. But this is not the only reason Putin is supporting Assad.
When it comes to analyzing the reasons Russia support the Syrian regime, many analysts advance the idea that Russia still has a cold war policy of seeking hegemony in the region against the U.S., therefore it needs to protect its naval base in Syria, which allows Russia to reach the Mediterranean. This cold war policy theory, however, does not completely apply to the Russian foreign policy nowadays. If the country indeed wants to keep his status of a global power, and an important actor influencing the Middle East, Moscow clearly does not have the territorial ambition it had during the cold war. The Middle East is an extremely important energy provider to the world; being an influential actor in the Middle East is part of the foreign policy of any country that has international ambitions.
Another argument, advanced by Russian government itself, is that they are supporting Assad against hard-line Islamists groups gaining power in the region. One of the top priorities Russian foreign policy concerning the region is indeed combating the widespread of hard-line Islamists, as it was the case in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus. Therefore, the Russians defend their support of Assad as a way to fight the widespread of Islamist groups in the region, and accuse the western word of feeding the crisis throughout their support to the rebel groups fighting Damascus. If this was not entirely the case at the beginning of the conflict, as the time passes by hard-line Islamists groups gain more power on the battle field, justifying the Russian speech. The chaotic situation in Libya and in Iraq seems to corroborate the Russian affirmative.
If at the beginning the U.S. believed a possible solution to the Syrian crisis would pass by Russia, now it is pretty clear that Moscow support to Assad will last. The Ukrainian crisis was another factor that benefited Assad: it took for a while the Syrian conflict of the spot line and it hardener the Russian support to Damascus. Moscow is indeed willing to prove that they are strong enough to fight to battles.
The U.S. passivity towards the Syrian conflict and the Russian positioning towards Syria and Ukraine put the country as one of the most important actors operating in the Middle East nowadays. Traditional U.S. allies such as Egypt are reaching out to Russia, since lately the country seems more engaged in Middle Eastern affairs than the U.S. Moreover, with the takeover of northern Iraq by ISIS, Russia find itself in a position of a country that was fighting to prevent the widespread of chaos in the region – even if it was not entirely the case before. Assad’s self-fulfilling prophecy of an Islamist chaos in the region has become true, and may benefit him and his allies as the Western world begin to talk about the necessity of neutralize the al-Qaeda menace in Syria and Iraq.
AHMED, Nafeez. Syria intervention plan fueled by oil interests, not chemical weapon concern. The Guardian, 08/30/2013. Last consulted on 06/15/2014, on http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/aug/30/syria-chemical-attack-war-intervention-oil-gas-energy-pipelines
FISHER, Max. The four reasons Russia won’t give up Syria, no matter what Obama does. The Whasington Post, 09/05/2013, last consulted on 06/15/2014, on http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/09/05/the-four-reasons-russia-wont-give-up-syria-no-matter-what-obama-does/
FISK, Robert. Ukraine’s future is tied up with Syria’s – and Vladimir Putin is crucial to both. The independent, 02/21/2014. Last consulted on 06/15/2014, on http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/robert-fisk-ukraines-future-is-tied-up-with-syrias–and-vladimir-putin-is-crucial-to-both-9145523.html
NICHOLS, Michelle. Russia says Syria agrees to aid access from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan. Reuters UK, 06/18/2014. Last consulted on 06/18/2014, on http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/06/17/uk-syria-crisis-un-aid-idUKKBN0ES33M20140617
PUTIN, Vladmir. A plea or caution from Russia. The New York Times, 09/11/2013. Last consulted on 06/16/2014, on http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html?_r=0
SLY, Liz. Assad taking advantage of U.S.-Russia split over Ukraine, observers say. The Washington Post, 03/07/2014. Last consulted on 06/15/2014, on http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/assad-taking-advantage-of-us-russia-split-over-ukraine-observers-say/2014/03/07/37d0f885-3900-466c-b278-5237087ceffe_story.html
TAYLOR, Adam. Russia on Iraq: we told you so. The Washington Post, 06/12/2014. Last consulted on 06/17/2014, on http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/06/12/russia-on-iraq-we-told-you-so/
THERME, Clément, « L’Iran et la Russie face aux crises du Moyen-Orient : entre connivence et divergence », Politique étrangère 1/ 2013 (Printemps), p. 131-143
DOI : 10.3917/pe.131.0131