Why Russia Won't Abandon Syria

After months of diplomatic exchanges, public shaming at the United Nations, even a direct tête-à-tête between presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, the United States has been unable to change the Russian position on Syria. Understanding why the Russian side is so adamant in its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad could help in limiting the fallout generated by this ongoing disagreement on the larger trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations.

Both Washington and Moscow share an aversion to revolutionary upheavals in the region that threaten well-established interests. The relatively muted U.S. response to some of the steps taken by the Egyptian military to limit the powers and authority both of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament and of the newly elected civilian president Mohamed Morsi reflects the perspective that key U.S. objectives, including maintaining the security relationship with Egypt and sustaining the peace treaty with Israel, are better served by having the military act as a counterweight to the Brotherhood. In some ways, what may emerge in Egypt is a version of the bargain that operates in many of the pro-American "moderate" monarchies of the region, where unelected kings and emirs retain the fail-safe levers of power to ensure that elected institutions do not cross certain red lines.

As many commentators already have explained in detail, Russia has a number of key interests in Syria, the main one being that Damascus is critical to Moscow's ability to project any sort of power in the region via one of Russia's most important military bases based outside the former Soviet Union. The Russians have concluded that if Assad is overthrown, any successor government will expel Russia from its facilities at Tartus. They see no reason to accelerate this process or even join it.

Perhaps if the Syrian opposition had, early on, announced its adherence to what might be termed the Guantanamo standard, things might have been different. Despite his implacable anti-Americanism, Fidel Castro never interfered with or abrogated the lease the United States has for the naval facilities at Guantanamo Bay. An announcement by the Syrian opposition that it was prepared to honor all contracts and arrangements of its predecessor might have led Moscow to adopt a more neutral stance. Interestingly enough, the opposition candidate in Venezuela, Henrique Capriles, has indicated that if he wins the elections this fall, he would not automatically cancel the deals concluded between Hugo Chávez and the Chinese and the Russians—part of an effort to try to change their calculus that they must support Chávez unconditionally to protect their interests. And the Russian government duly noted how, even though it had abstained from the UN resolution used by NATO as the basis for the air operation that ultimately helped to drive Muammar el-Qaddafi from power, the Libyan Transitional Government openly questioned whether a new Libya would honor the contracts the previous regime had concluded with Russia. Certainly this helped to reinforce a view in the Kremlin that there would be no benefit to Russia in backing away from its support for Assad.

If this had been done early on, the Russians might have been persuaded to support a Yemen-style transfer of power, which would have satisfied the U.S. objective of seeing Assad removed from office and would have protected some of Russia's key equities. But now, the window for that sort of arrangement has ended. And it is important to note that Russia's perspective on the Syrian revolution now is being shaped by events that have little to do with the Middle East.

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April 25, 2014