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Russia to Assad’s Rescue?

Things have been pretty grim in Syria for many weeks now, deteriorating even further from earlier in the five-month-long repression.  Depending on what numbers you are consulting, the death toll from the government crackdowns has reached as high as 1,700 people, with regular reports of a few dozen protesters killed per weekday.  The pressure has been growing in intensity, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates joining the chorus of Western countries calling for an end to the violence, and, from some governments, the more explicit demand that Bashar al-Assad step down.  You know things have gotten serious when they’ve even been banned from competing in the next World Cup.

So how has Russia responded to these atrocities?  Well on Wednesday they said they would continuing selling arms to Syria despite all the pressure, theoretically to make sure they are well equipped for this bloodbath (to the tune of $5.9 billion in the first half the year).  Next, Moscow has gotten out in front against the referral of a Syria case to the International Criminal Court, indicating that they would veto such a resolution.  And then, just in case their position wasn’t clear, there was this bit:

“We do not share the United States and the European Union’s point of view regarding President (Bashar) al-Assad and will continue to pursue our consistent and principled stance on Syria,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Assad needs to be given “sufficient time to implement the declared large-scale programme of social, political and economic reforms,” the foreign ministry said.

For a government that is seeking to portray itself as a global leader capable of problem solving, the diplomatic response to the violent crackdowns in the Arab world leave much to be desired.  Whether these policy positions are guided by geopolitical interest, ideology, business, or the old fashioned do-whatever-is-opposite-of-Washington, many people are getting tired of the games.

Writing on his Twitter, Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch stated, “#Russia exporter callously plans to continue arms sales to #Syria. What are dead demonstrators when profit is at stake?”  Sec. Hilary Clinton was much more circumspect, remarking that she would “like” to see Russia make its own decision to stop selling arms to Syria. Salman Shaikh of Brookings Doha Center has argued that instead of winning over favoritism from Assad when the violence subsides, instead Russia is losing the relationship: “Russia should think long and hard about what that means for its strategic interests in the days and weeks to come.”  All kinds of Syrian and international pro-democracy activists have been increasingly focusing their attacks on Russia’s protection of this regime from international action?

So why is Russia spending so much political capital on propping up Assad?  The argument that Rosoboronexport’s profits are the reason doesn’t hold up – they could finagle three times that amount by offering to hold gold reserves for Hugo Chavez.  The naval base on the Mediterranean certainly is a nice benefit to the relationship, but there’s no reason (yet) why that would be lost.  In geopolitical terms, it is difficult to say whether Russia’s interests in the region would necessarily be negatively impacted by a new government in Damascus.  As a focal point of influence in the Middle East, the Saudis are eager to tug Syria away from Iran, Turkey wants to see Damascus engaged in new regional structures to solve the crisis – structures that Turkey itself would sit atop of (although patience is quickly expiring), while the United States looks out for regional security and Israeli interests (which may not necessarily be the outcome of a ragtag opposition government).  As for Iran, which regards the Syrian regime as “the one and only foreign policy achievement of the Iranian Islamic Revolution,” we can presume Tehran has been begging Moscow for favors to preserve the Assad regime in the interests of Iran’s sense of regional security and range of action to suppress its own protests.

However when push comes to shove, Iran might be a bit surprised by Russia’s willingness to put Assad on the block.  Moscow is already softening on a UNSC statement, if not a resolution, and has also said that they are not categorically opposed to having Syria referred to the ICC … they just seem to want to drag their feet a bit longer.  Much like the controversial resolution that Russia abstained from on Libya, Moscow is playing a game that will seek to be the last odd man out (a position that China often gets to enjoy).  Their goal, at least in terms of Iran, is to maintain status quo – a situation in which Tehran is locked in conflict with the West, where one week they say they will build the Bushehr plant and then they cancel plans, or offer arms and missile defense systems, only to never deliver them.  The last thing Russia wants to see as a long-term result would be a resolution of conflict in this area of the world, which would open up to Europe the world’s second largest natural gas reserves, shattering their primary economic and political lever.

Russia may eventually go with the rest of the Europeans on the Syria issue, if somewhat reluctantly, because they know that Iran has few other friends to turn to on blocking any meaningful progress on nuclear proliferation.  Sacrificing Assad after putting up all the show of a fight to defend him is a reasonable cost, especially when they would be able to pull Turkey back toward the Eurasian sphere and keep the Saudis, the French, and the German all complacent.

Still, it’s hard for the activists not to view Russia as a country acting out of fear of its own people on the Syria question, eagerly protecting each sovereign government’s right to murder protesters without international consequence – which is, by the way, a very outdated conception of “realism” and sovereignty.  Then again, when the Georgians began firing on Tskhinvali, this of course constituted a humanitarian emergency requiring armed intervention with no consultation with other parties.  In fact, Russia is pursuing a case at the ICC against Georgia.

Nobody ever said Russian foreign policy was meant to always make sense.  That would involve the presumption of rational actors.