Why is Russia backing Assad?

September 28, 2015

Vladimir Putin's support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is about more than propping up Russia's only remaining ally in the Middle East, explains an article originally published at the anti-imperialist Russian website OpenLeft.ru and posted in an English translation by Nick Evans at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

A WHOLE range of evidence (also here) indicates that Russia is activating military aid for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad up to the point of direct involvement of Russian troops in the Syrian conflict. Why now in particular, and what lies behind this?

Taken individually, neither military and political ties nor economic ties between Russia and the Syrian regime are sufficient to explain the stubborn support for Assad from the Russian Federation. This support had become the source of a serious conflict with the West even before the events in Ukraine. Of course, Assad's regime is now the only reliable ally of Russia in the region, and its loss would make Russia unable to continue playing an important role in the Middle East.

Supposedly, another factor was Syria's previous control over the transit of Iraqi and Saudi Arabian oil--of fundamental importance for Russia as one of the world's largest oil exporters. In turn, the desire to seize this control played a major role in defining the anti-Assad position of Turkey, Israel and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. However, it is telling that Saudi Arabia received a decisive rejection when it openly suggested to Russia earlier this year that it cut off support for Assad in return for a lowering of the tempo of its oil production--which could have then put the brake on tumbling global oil prices.

People from the Syrian town of Kafranbel protest the Assad dictatorship's terrorism while the U.S. sticks it head in the sand
People from the Syrian town of Kafranbel protest the Assad dictatorship's terrorism while the U.S. sticks it head in the sand (Kafranbel Artists)

Concern about the rise of radical Islamism in the region, and beyond to the North Caucasus, is also not a sufficient explanation. Many analysts see Russia's support of the Syrian regime as having a significance that goes well beyond the Syrian conflict itself: by opposing the attempts to depose Assad, the Kremlin is opposing the very possibility of a "regime change" sanctioned by international institutions, as it considers that the next target of such a "regime change" could be itself.

The Russian government's position on Syria, radically different from that of Western governments, has on occasion brought benefits for its reputation abroad--such as when Putin's column was published in the New York Times, making a plea against military intervention in Syria and criticizing notions of American exceptionalism. However, on the whole, Russia has been more on the defensive.

MEANWHILE, THE situation in the Middle East changed, and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) enabled things that had formerly seemed impossible, such as the partial normalization of U.S. relations with Iran. So the Assad regime also stopped being less unacceptable to the U.S. In this context, Putin appears to have decided to go on the offensive--perhaps not in the literal sense of sending troops into Syria, but at the very least in the sense of backroom talks with Washington, using the new Russian airbase in the Syrian port city of Latakia as an excuse.

According to Bloomberg, this new tactic may well bear fruit--at least some of those working at the White House believe the priority should be widening the alliance against ISIS. They accept the activation of Russian help for Assad as an already established fact and are even prepared to work with Russia in an aerial campaign against ISIS. By the looks of it, this is exactly what Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are hoping for.

On the whole, the Kremlin's tactical course can be seen as a continuation of its struggle for a "fairer multipolar world," in which international relations are not regulated by normative principles of liberalism and human rights, but through mutual recognition of interests and cooperation on concrete questions. It is precisely on these conditions that, through a pragmatic coalition in Syria, Russia is attempting to reintegrate itself into the world order, simultaneously changing the rules of the game.

So the real consequences of Russian foreign policy, despite Russia's constant criticisms of the "hypocrisy of humanitarian interventions," are no better than the same humanitarian interventions. The victims of the Syrian regime are far greater than those of ISIS. Support for Assad is support for a dictator who has turned the military apparatus of his country into an effective machine for the obliteration of its own population. However much Lavrov and Putin's Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov make passive-aggressive criticisms of "Western hypocrisy," Russia is at least as responsible for what is happening in Syria as Western states.

And the Kremlin's demonstrative refusal to take any part in solving the refugee crisis is truly hypocritical. By suggesting that the countries of the EU deal with the consequences of a crisis which Russia has done so much to create in Syria, Putin's Russia feels it has the "last laugh." The drama of hundreds of thousands of people losing their homes is presented in Peskov's announcements as an elegant lesson, subordinated to the Kremlin's foreign policy towards its "western partners."

Translated from Russian by Nick Evans and first published in English at the rs21 website.

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