Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria rests on Moscow’s support. But as the United States, Europe, the Arab Gulf, and Turkey ratchet up the pressure on Damascus, Russia refuses to publicly discuss Assad’s ouster, and in the midst of reports that the CIA is ferrying weapons to the opposition, Russia’s arms sellers continue to steadily supply Assad’s forces. This situation bodes ill for Syria: Damascus and the opposition still see the solution in the complete elimination of the other side, and their foreign friends have done little so far to nudge the antagonists toward some kind of a compromise. But barring a huge shift in the conflict’s internal dynamics, Russia is unlikely to change its position.
To Moscow, Syria is not primarily about Middle Eastern geopolitics, Cold War-era alliances, arms sales—or even special interests, like the under-renovation Tartus naval resupply facility which gives Russia some capacity to operate on the Mediterranean. Regional geopolitics and alliances are relevant, but they are about Tehran, not Moscow; and while arms contracts and Tartus are certainly important, they are secondary.
Rather, from a Russian policy perspective, Syria—much like yesterday’s Libya, Iraq, or Yugoslavia—is primarily about the world order. It is about who decides: who decides whether to use military force; who decides the actors for use of that force; and who decides under what rules, conditions, and oversight military force is to be used.
Of course, as elsewhere, Russia’s stated principles are closely linked to its national interests. Moscow is concerned that allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders—namely, in the North Caucasus. Moscow has consistently opposed the use of force without a clear UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate, and its insistence on the UNSC green light is rooted in Russian permanent membership in that body, complete with veto right.
Not only do the Russians reject outside military intervention without a UNSC mandate; they also reject the concept of regime change under foreign pressure. This support for non-intervention is unsurprising given that all regimes—excepting established democracies—could be theoretically considered as lacking legitimacy. Notably, however, Moscow has also committed to this principle in its own foreign relations: it has not staged a single coup in newly independent states of the former Union. Following the defeat of the Georgian army in 2008, it resisted the temptation of a regime change in Tbilisi and, with very few exceptions (like the Taliban regime in Afghanistan), has been willing to deal with any established authority anywhere—from North Korea to Iran to Gaza. Under Vladimir Putin, state sovereignty and territorial integrity have become articles of faith in Moscow’s foreign policy.
Libya, of course, is the most recent exception of this outlook. But we should note that Russia abstained from the 2011 vote for intervention only to see the UN mandate—a humanitarian operation to save lives in Benghazi—abused by NATO, and has hardened its position since.
Moscow’s policy is also informed by its assessment of the likely outcome in Syria. From the very start, Russian Middle East-watchers have been markedly less upbeat on the Arab Awakening. Vitaly Naumkin, probably the most prominent Russian expert on the region, called it the “Great Islamist Revolution.” While others saw a repeat of Europe’s democratic revolutions of 1848 or 1989, the Russians drew parallels to their own of 1917; the only question was which month would be the Red October. Early on, Russian policy-makers, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, feared an Islamist Spring, and regarded pro-Western liberals as paving the way for religious radicals or al-Qaeda allies. Eighteen months on, these predictions have borne out: in Libya with its post-Qaddafi chaos, reported al-Qaeda presence, arms proliferation, and destabilizing impact on neighboring Mali; and in Egypt with the electoral triumphs of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization which Moscow still officially designates as terrorist.
This fear is decidedly more pronounced in Syria where a violent ouster of Assad would be succeeded first by chaos, with radical groups and al-Qaeda-types gaining a foothold just a few hundred miles from Russia’s own troubled North Caucasus. Even though the issues at hand in the North Caucasus are domestic in origin, the local jihadis draw inspiration and support from the Middle East. With the Winter Olympics in Sochi less than two years away, Moscow seeks to prevent anything that might destabilize Russia’s southern borderland.
For all these reasons, Moscow has preferred an order of brutality over chaos in Syria. Throughout 2011, Russian maneuvering hinged on Assad being able to crush the opposition—much like Saudi Arabia had done in Bahrain. But the conflict has dragged on—as a broad Western-Arab coalition has withdrawn recognition of the Assad regime and several states have begun arming the opposition—and Russia is increasingly weary of prolonged civil war and escalating violence. So far, however, nothing has happened to force Moscow to recalculate: the Syrian army has not turned against the Assads in the name of national salvation; and the merchant classes of Aleppo and Damascus (who hold the fate of the regime in their hands) have not withdrawn their passive support to the government. Only if these dynamics shift and turn the tide decisively against Assad will Russia be forced to fundamentally alter its calculus.
Barring such dramatic changes, Russia might be willing to cooperate with the U.S. and other countries if the goal moves towards “transition” rather than “regime change”—what has been dubbed the “Yemen model.” Of course, Syria is no Yemen, and the removal of one person or even the ruling family may not stop civil conflict. But the essence of the Yemen model is not in its details: the central idea lies in replacing violence with political process. Transition rather than regime change would require both Russia and the United States to adapt their principles in order to protect their larger interests–and it may be the only promise for international cooperation on Syria.