Over the last three months, both the Western and Arab press have been hoping for signs of change in the Russian stance on Syria and perhaps even withdrawal of support from Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Some went as far as to contend that Russia had finally understood that the end of the Syrian government was near and had decided to hedge its bets by intensifying dialogue with supporters of the Syrian opposition. The diplomatic traffic between senior Russian officials and their colleagues from the US, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Qatar, as well as semi-official meetings with the Syrian opposition were seen as proof of Russia’s changing policy.
In late July, the Wall Street Journal assumed that Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince Muhammad bin Salman’s visit to St. Petersburg was another attempt by Riyadh to get Russian buy-in on Syria. Given the number of trade, economic and investment agreements signed during the trip, even Russian experts predicted a possible change in Moscow’s policy. US President Barack Obama’s enthusiastic statements (on 6 and 14 July) about the positive role Russia could play in settling the Syrian conflict were taken as another indication.
Weapons for Assad
However, recent events have proven that, once again, the West has misread Russia’s intentions. Moscow has instead decided to raise the stakes in Syria by stepping up military assistance to Assad. The latest consignments were said to include surveillance drones, BTR-80A (or, according to some sources, the more sophisticated BTR-82) advanced amphibious armoured personnel carriers, Ural military trucks and the GAZ Tigr infantry mobility vehicles (relatively recently provided to Russia’s own army). There have also been rumours that Moscow plans to supply several MiG-31 fighter jets and provide pilots to operate them.
This has led to claims in the Western media that Russia is about to deploy boots on the ground in Syria. There has even been speculation that the Syrian authorities have started building accommodation for thousands of Russian soldiers. While the above statements are fanciful, the fact that the Kremlin has stepped up its military assistance to Syria demonstrates that Moscow has no intention of withdrawing its support from Assad. There are at least two reasons for this.
Long Live the King
First, the Russian authorities do not believe that Assad’s days are numbered. At a press conference in Doha on 3 August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even joked that ‘Assad’s end was predicted four years ago and it still has not come’. The authorities in Damascus are exhausted by the protracted conflict, but their recent decision to concentrate on defending their main strongholds (the littoral area, Homs, Hama and Damascus) may strengthen them. The combination of the ethnic and religious make-up of some of these areas, the regime’s access to Russian arms supplies and Shia ‘volunteers’ from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, means that opposition forces will now find it more difficult than before to achieve new success on the battlefield. No one is predicting a speedy defeat for Assad; on the contrary, an increasing number of European leaders see Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the primary threat. Some of them have suggested that it is necessary to engage Assad to defeat them. Under the circumstances, Moscow is no longer under pressure to withdraw its support from Assad.
Jihadism as a Key Domestic Challenge
The authorities in Moscow appear to believe that by helping Assad they are protecting Russia’s national interests, particularly in combating jihadi fighters. In August 2014, Lavrov called ISIS ‘the primary threat’ to Russia in the region. The Kremlin maintains that Assad’s fall would turn Syria into another Libya, which would mean the further radicalization of the Middle East and export of Islamic radicalism to Russia, the North and South Caucasus and Central Asia.
The Russian security services are closely watching the activities of around 2,000 Russian-speaking jihadists in Syria, − most of them effective fighters harbouring ill will towards the Russian government. Should Assad be removed from power, Moscow has little doubt that these fighters would move their struggle for the Islamic caliphate to the post-Soviet space. Therefore the Kremlin would prefer to fight – and defeat − them outside Russian territory.
Helping One’s Allies
Finally, withdrawing support from Assad would strike a serious blow to President Putin’s image at home. Assad is routinely portrayed as Moscow’s ally in the struggle against the Islamist challenge in the Russian media, and Russia’s loyalty to him is seen as a matter of ‘principle’. Consequently, the Russian authorities would have trouble explaining changes in their relations with Damascus to the general public.
Russia’s stance on Syria is driven by self-interest and reflects the conditions on the ground: Russian propaganda continues to repeat the idea that, although the government forces have lost a large part of the country’s territory, they still control the most populated areas. In the Kremlin’s eyes this makes Assad a person to deal with. Moscow’s 'master plan' is to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime and its recent decision to step up military support to Damascus should not have come as a surprise. Russia is unlikely to deviate from its strategy of supporting Assad in the foreseeable future.