Why Russia Won't Abandon Syria

Moscow is standing by Assad to send a message to Russian partners in other parts of the world.

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.

A consistent question posed by U.S. policy makers is the basis of the loyalty the Kremlin is showing to Assad. Why can't Moscow simply "cut a deal" with the revolutionary forces (assuming one could be brokered) and switch sides? If the Syria conflict existed in isolation, perhaps. But the steadfast support the Kremlin continues to provide to Assad—shielding the regime against stronger UN sanctions and providing its security forces with the wherewithal to try to suppress the uprising—is meant to reassure another group of leaders: presidents in the post-Soviet space concerned with their own successions.

At a bare minimum, Russia cannot afford to be complicit in any overthrow of the Assad regime. Its support for the Annan plan was predicated on the assumption that it would leave Assad in the driver's seat in terms of charting Syria's political future. Keeping Assad's sovereign prerogatives intact is essential.

This defense of the Syrian leader and his regime has as much to do with reassuring Russian partners in other parts of the world, particularly in Central Asia, that Moscow is prepared to stand by its friends and associates even when things get difficult. This is particularly important in the former Soviet space, where other countries are attempting to follow the Syrian example of a "republican monarchy" and keep executive power within a ruling family. Both Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan have been in office for more than two decades. Both are concerned with ensuring a safe succession that will protect the interests of their families and associates and want to mitigate the risk that a new regime would seek to sacrifice the personnel and loyal servitors of its predecessor as a way to cement its own power.

This is why there is no "silver bullet" argument that will convince Moscow to change its perspective on the Syria issue. It also means that the likely concessions that the West might offer in order to gain Russian support for regime change would be insufficient. Given that the United States is not going to make Russian acquiescence with U.S. preferences on Syria a litmus test for the bilateral relationship, Russia has too much to lose, in terms of sustaining its relationships with other potentially embattled leaders around the world, by seemingly abandoning a trusted and reliable client.

So expect no major breakthroughs in the U.S.-Russian impasse over Syria.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.

Image: www.kremlin.ru