The Kremlin’s Moves in Syria

Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov can, rather disingenuously, if not outright cynically, claim that the Kremlin does not arm Assad, it only fulfills the back orders contracted during the Soviet times.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | November 28, 2012

Syrian President Bashir al-AssadRussian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov

As Syria is aflame torn by a civil war, Russia seeks several interrelated objectives there. First, it aims to shore up a friendly regime. Second, in the short run, it wants to arrest the implosion of the regional balance of power in the wake of the Arab Spring. Third, in the long run, Moscow seeks to restore the geopolitical status quo ante the war in Iraq (2004), a sort of a neo-Cold War system based upon the Kremlin’s old Soviet-time alliances. Fourth, it endeavors to project its power in the Middle East to curtail America’s efforts there and to demonstrate its ability to reassert itself to the world at large.

To achieve these objectives, Russia plays an intricate game of integrated strategy. The key is to preserve Bashir al-Assad’s Baathist regime. There are a number of benefits. Both Syria and Russia are compatible national security states based upon their armed forces and secret services. Further, President Vladimir Putin’s administration is comfortable with an ostensibly secular government, even if it is Alawite-controlled. It is easier to do business with fellow socialists, rather than the Islamists. Except for Algeria, Syria is also the last left-over of the once solid Cold War system of allied (“non-alligned”) pro-Soviet states. Others have succumbed either to the Arab Spring (Libya and Tunisia) or American arms (Iraq) and diplomacy (Egypt – Camp David).

Abutting Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel, Syria has served, to an extent, as a proxy for Russia’s interests in the region. It has strengthened the trends that are in the post-Soviet state’s interest, like destabilizing Israel, which sends jitters through the United States. Damascus is a reliable ally. It amplifies Moscow’s message on the international forum, including the United Nations and various Third World outfits. It has allowed the Kremlin to maintain a naval base in Tartus since 1971, an important warm water hub to meddle in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The base has now been reinforced. It cyclically hosts Russian naval squadrons, on swagger and supply expeditions. Other Muscovite warships hover nearby, reportedly carrying the marines. For now the Kremlin is standing by but remains ready to intervene. Thus, Syria is a pivot point for Russia’s strategy in the region.

Keeping Assad in power is crucial also because of the setback it represents for the United States in the region. American influence in Iraq is steadily waning. It is also seriously undermined anywhere the Islamists have made their inroads, in particular in Iran since 1979 and in Egypt, since earlier this year. Cozy with Damascus, Moscow can count on its good offices in Teheran. Currently, there is a convergence of interests. Both the Islamic Republic and the Russian Federation work hand in glove, supporting Assad. With the Middle East in a state of anarchic flux, Russia aims to return Syria to serve as an island of stability in the post-Soviet geopolitical gameplan.

That is the reason Moscow helps Damascus skirt the international sanctions and arms embargo of the UN, the U.S., and the European Union. That is why the Russians refine Syrian oil and launder Syrian money. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov can, rather disingenuously, if not outright cynically, claim that the Kremlin does not arm Assad, it only fulfills the back orders contracted during the Soviet times. And Syria, like most Third World countries, is awash with Soviet-designed weapons. Without the post-Soviet logistical support the Baathist military would have already succumbed to the hodgepodge Free Syrian Army. There are periodic Russian weapons deliveries, and attempted deliveries, by air and sea. Turkey has intercepted several suspect aircraft, including from Azerbaijan, forcing them to land and searching them despite Muscovite diplomatic protests. The West is more subtle. In one instance a single Russian ship loaded with weapons and munitions attempted to run a blockade three times, retreating finally when a Western company cancelled its insurance policy.

Russia has found itself at loggerheads with the EU over Syria and France is the main detractor. Moscow hopes to prevail on Brussels to remain uninvolved as the latter is primarily interested in checking the massive refugee influx, much of it triggered by the Arab Spring, and exacerbated by the current crisis in Syria. The Kremlin pays close attention to this problem because the Syrian refugees will most likely affect Greece. And, crippled by a paralyzing economic crisis of its own, Athens is in no mood to play host anymore. Thus, Russia’s moves in Syria partly cater to the Greek concerns. According to Putin, stabilizing the Assad regime will solve the refugee crisis in the EU, including Greece.

However, France has an alternative plan. As with Libya earlier, the French have taken the lead in Syria with respect to regime change. This is partly because the latter had been a French mandate before the de-colonization of the 1940s and 1950s. Also, Paris enjoys reliving its former glory by indulging in periodic military interventions overseas. It also wants to be perceived as the most muscular and nationalistic of the EU member states. The true heir to Napoleon and de Gaulle, France likes unilaterally to call the EU shots as far as foreign entanglements are concerned. Thus, it has coerced the Syrian opposition to assemble a “moderate” governing council behind the Free Syrian Army to forestall the Western fears of Islamism. Paris touts the council as a viable alternative to the Assad regime, much more palatable to the West and capable of stabilizing the nation. This is a direct challenge to Moscow’s recipe for stability in Syria.

Another one comes from Turkey. Ankara is interested in spreading its influence in the form of its peculiar Islamist democratization as the ticket to modernity. But the ambitions of the Turkish leaders are positively imperial and aim to project Ankara’s power as far afield as central Asia in the east and Morocco in the west. This is neo-Ottomanism par excellence, and it irks Russia with its pretentions to meddle in the post-Soviet zone, not only in, say, Kyrgizstan and the Crimea, but even in Russia’s own Tatarstan itself. By proposing an alternative geopolitical arrangement, neo-Ottomanism can also undermine Russian attempts to restore the neo-Cold War system in the Middle East.

Although, reportedly, Saudi Arabia supplies the bulk of the financial assistance to Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni opposition, both for confessional and geopolitical reasons (to counter Iran), it is Turkey that bears the brunt of the refugee crisis and violence. Its history with Syria is rather checkered; the formerly dominant attaturkist military regime oscillated between hot hostility and cold tolerance with Damascus, treating it as an Arab nationalist threat and, primarily, a Soviet-related challenge to be countered through NATO. Currently, Turkey’s newly empowered Islamist regime views the Assad government as an oppressor of the fellow Sunnis and a secularist rival for modernization and power in the region. It has created sanctuaries not only for the refugees, but also for the Sunni fighters to rest and regroup, all along the border, and from the direction of Aleppo in particular. This has triggered some military retaliation from the government of Syria, so far mostly limited shelling on occasion. Turkey has reacted by rushing troops to the border and firing back, which included shooting down Syrian aircraft.

Ankara is also extremely worried about the apparent self-liberation of Syria’s Kurds, who have been lying low for now. Like the Syrian Christians, they have been straddling the fence. Their refusal to commit against Assad has led to clashes with the FAS, one can guess – inspired by Ankara. The latter also hastily began negotiating with its own Kurdish minority, lest they all join the Iraqi Kurdistan’s Piedmont to make a concerted bid for independence. Thus, Turkey is also interested in stabilizing Syria fast, but – like the EU under French leadership (and, increasingly, the U.S.) – without Assad.

Moscow counters Ankara by tightening the geopolitical noose around it. In the Caucasus, Armenia needs no encouragement. However, the Azeri involvement in the Syrian affair is rather baffling and its character quite unclear. Baku habitually opposes Yerevan and Teheran, while relying on Ankara. Yet, Azeri planes, clearly at the behest of Moscow, deliver cargo to Damascus. Is it a one-time pro-Muscovite adventure for Azerbaijan in the guise of a humanitarian mission in Syria?

According to Russia, Turkey must be contained. It not only threatens the Kremlin’s geopolitical neo-Cold War restoration project, it also makes Putin’s little Greek Orthodox brothers in Athens a bit nervous. Next, Ankara opposes Russian energy interests and exploration expeditions in the eastern Mediterranean, around Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon, and, yes, Syria. Turkey claims an equal share at least. Here Russia must tread carefully. Too ham-fisted an approach to Ankara would result in the Turks robustly opening up alternative venues for the oil and gas pipelines into Europe, thus nipping Moscow’s policy of rationing energy to the EU. Putin’s ability to continue exerting pressure on the continent, and most notably its post-Soviet zone, would become seriously curtailed. So the Kremlin strives to de-couple its Syrian moves from its European energy policy. It has so far played a subtle game of undermining Turkey, while pretending to either humor Ankara or ignore it.

Further, Russia’s cutting Turkey down to size will please the Islamist heirs to the Persian empire, who harbor regional hegemonic ambitions of their own. Ankara is in Teheran’s way, including with the grandiose neo-Ottomanist project. Therefore, like Russia, Iran supports stabilizing Syria by securing Assad’s victory. But it has also worked hard to turn Iraq into its de facto satellite. And the mullahs further want to de-stabilize Israel by enabling its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively.

Meanwhile, Israel seems rather content about the civil war in Syria. When the Arabs are busy fighting each other, they tend to pay less attention to the Israelis. However, the Iranian efforts to destabilize Israel, naturally enough, grate on Tel Aviv’s nerves. In November 2012, following yet another wave of rocket attacks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu ordered an assault on Hamas leaders and installations in Gaza. The domestic and international outcry halted the attacks with Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi playing the honest broker in a cease-fire.

Perhaps Tel Aviv has learned that a little bit of destabilization in Syria is good for Israeli security; but too much destabilization threatens to spill over everywhere. This can lead to a universal revolution in the Middle East, trigger general anarchy, and engulf Israel itself. It may even result in a nuclear Armageddon as the Zionist state deploys its weapon of last resort and is countered by Iran, which is about to acquire atomic weapons of its own.

At any rate, the Israeli side show is over, with scores of Palestinians and several Jews dead, but there is no equivalent of moral outrage over tens of thousands killed in Syria’s civil war. Here comes a great chance for Putin to show Israel that its fate lies ultimately in the hands of Moscow. Only the Kremlin can deliver peace. If Russia can assist Assad to victory, if it can then resurrect a neo-Cold War geopolitical system in the Middle East, then, once again, the Kremlin will become a major player in the region. But that is a big “if”.

Arab national socialist regimes of yore were ideologically compatible with Soviet Communism. Islamism is inimical to post-Communism. However, both systems are congenitally anti-Western. That will help them work together. After all, Iran cooperates with Russia, despite their obvious ideological and religious differences. And don’t forget the Stalin-Hitler Pact.

It is a truism that Russia has inherited the mantle of the Soviet Union, its interests, and its modus operandi. Thus, its foreign policy should be no mystery outside of the “reset” circles at Foggy Bottom and many of the international relations experts. Russia’s foreign affairs are based on a rather predictable continuity in search of power, credibility, and legitimacy of its Leninist inspired system of “sovereign democracy,” which – the masters of the Kremlin never tire of stressing – is quite different from Western style parliamentary democracy.

On the metaphysical level, the Russian Federation defines itself as a contradiction to the United States. Some of it has to do with the legacy of the Cold War which Moscow lost. Next, it is related to the continued need of the Kremlin to conjure up powerful enemies to mobilize popular support for the regime at home. Further, it is a function of demonstrating to itself and to the global community at large Russia’s ability to stand up to America’s hegemonic hyperpower.

Syria is a perfect battlefield to fulfill Putin’s metaphysical and practical objectives. But he will not push too hard. An appearance of hyper commitment coupled with a failure to save Assad would be a serious blemish on the Russian President’s record and may embolden the opposition at home. Further, Russia is perfectly willing to find an anti-Western geopolitical modus vivendi with the Syrian Islamists, as with their Iranian counterparts, if they agree to the erection of the neo-Cold War zone in the Middle East. Last but not least, Moscow’s dialectical agility will enable it to work with anyone, including the United States, if the Kremlin can have its way.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the
Institute of World Politics
, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is also a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.