Why does Russia so stubbornly support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad? This question is frequently discussed in Western media and political circles. Many American and European analysts consider Moscow’s policy a “phantom of the Cold War” or some kind of dictatorial solidarity. But realism plays a more important role in Moscow’s reasoning than anti-American hostility.
For Russia, Syria is a three-dimensional phenomenon. The first two dimensions are better known: Russia, along with China, has a long-running dispute with the West about the relationship between sovereignty and intervention in the domestic political process. That controversy has not been sparked by the current Syrian crisis; instead, it dates back to the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Secondly, Moscow has economic and geopolitical interests in Syria, ranging from business contracts to Russia’s only naval facility on the Mediterranean Sea in Tartus.
The Caucasus Question
The third dimension of Russia’s approach to Syria relates to the situation in the North Caucasus, the most problematic region of the country. From the moment Russia launched its first military operation in Chechnya in late 1994, Moscow not only faced the problem of the domestic legitimacy of the campaign but also was confronted with the challenge of minimizing the operation’s risk to its foreign policy. In the case of Chechnya, Russia was taking military action in a region inhabited by numerous Muslims, who were connected to the wider Muslim world through many networks. For the first time since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Russia—the successor state of the Soviet Union—risked being isolated in the Islamic world.
In the Arab world, there was never a common response to Russia's North Caucasus policy. And there is not one today, especially considering the diverse interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Qatar. Still, the support of many Arab states for Russia’s territorial integrity and their positions vis-à-vis Chechnya in 1994, 1999 and 2004 (during the Beslan tragedy) helped Moscow. The North Caucasus has not become “the second Afghanistan,” with thousands of volunteers from the Arab countries flooding in to combat the Russian military. On the contrary, many Arab mercenaries, who were looking for a “just fight” in the mountains of Chechnya and Dagestan, were persecuted in their own homelands for their planned invasion.
And let us not forget about the the South Caucasus. In August 2008, Bashar al-Assad endorsed Russia’s military actions in Georgia, publicly proclaiming Russia as a guarantor of peace in the South Caucasus. In a contrary move in 2003, Qatar, which so steadfastly speaks in support of the current Syrian opposition, offered its territory for the residence of Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who lived there as a “personal guest of the emir.”
Protecting the Circassians
The Circassian community—a small tribal group of thirty thousand to one hundred thousand depending on the assessment—is equally important to the Syrian situation. As a rule, the Circassians living in the Middle East, especially in Jordan, Syria and Turkey, have been loyal to their respective governments. Throughout the twentieth century, there were plentiful success stories of ethnic Circassians in living in Syria, including a commander of the Syrian Air Force and a Syrian military attaché to Europe. Prior to the current crisis, Circassian Syrians effectively cooperated with businessmen and republican authorities in Russia’s North Caucasus constituencies of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Circassia.
Today, as a result of growing violence and hostility in Syria, the Circassian community has found itself living under extremely harsh conditions. Hence, there is increasing interest in the idea of repatriation to the historic motherland in Russia. This approach is supported by Circassian activists in Russia and leaders in the western regions of the Russian Caucasus.
Resettlement of Circassians from Syria to the Caucasus would weaken Georgian attempts to raise the specter of the Circassian genocide. Moscow could also use the current Circassian situation as an opportunity to decouple the Circassian problem from the Sochi Olympics it will host in 2014. Thus, Moscow has a chance to shape a positive agenda, focusing not on the past, but on the present and future. And it is more than just a coincidence that this past March the Circassian issue was discussed in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament.
Acknowledging Russian Pragmatism
Russia’s interests in Syria should not be viewed solely as elite complexes or imperial fantasies. They are to a large extent pragmatic and relate to a wide spectrum of issues involving domestic security. But despite this pragmatic approach, Russian diplomacy is unable to clearly articulate the country’s national interests. Its spokesmen rely more on emotions than on facts and strict arguments—sometimes exploiting anti-American rhetoric for no good reason.
While some in Western circles would criticize Russia for its flawed diplomacy, they should also be careful not to oversimplify Moscow’s positions regarding Syria. Doing so would be unproductive: the North Caucasus jihadists and their potential allies will continue to promote anti-Western views in what will likely remain a problematic Syria, no matter who is in power there.
Sergey Markedonov is visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.