September 3, 2013

Why Russia Continues to Support Assad

Despite the current political climate in Moscow with its own unrest in the south, and concern over its “sphere of influence,” President Putin appears dedicated to supporting the Assad regime. Yet Russia, as well as the Unites States is at the risk of long-term backlash when it comes to military intervention.  Not only would they run the risk of battling in a proxy war, but also share a common thread in the risk of prolonging an insurgency and arming future jihadists.  If there is to be a peaceful resolution, both parties need to back down from their promised and enacted war efforts and facilitate a dialogue between the rebels and current regime.

In May of this year, Russia delivered on its promise to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Assad’s regime in order to boost his efforts against the rebel forces.  Considering that the rebels currently have no access to aircraft, these anti-aircraft missiles suggest that they are intended to deter direct Western military intervention as well as any armament of the rebels or setting up a no-fly zone. Russia’s alliance with Iran, its past intelligence relationship with Syria during the Soviet era, as well as a long term arms trade agreement with the regime makes any U.S intervention a threat to its sphere of influence. However, at the core of the Russian, Iranian, Syrian alliance is Russia’s own domestic conflicts with its regions to the south.

International Political Forum

Dmitry Medvedev with Bashar al-Assad. Image credit: Presidential Press and Information Office

Syria As Another Chechnya?

The origin of Russia’s trouble in the Caucasus, can be traced to Chechnya’s peaceful separatist movement following the fragmentation of former Soviet states after the fall of the USSR.  Chechnya’s struggle for national identity and statehood, through Russia’s hard-line response, transformed it into a wider conflict that pulled Islamic fundamentalists into the fray.  Russia’s two wars in the region resulted in the deaths of thousands of separatists and civilians while veritably leveling the capital city. According to Human Rights Watch, the Russian military response disproportionately and repeatedly attacked the region, including targeting civilian areas.  The disproportionate nature of the retaliation attracted support by many foreign Islamic militants; many of who had fought Russia during the Soviet-era invasion of Afghanistan. With support from fundamentalist foreign Sunnis such as the Salafi-Jihadists in addition to constant barrages of excessive retaliation by Russia, the conflict began to take on the nature of a trans-border movement for an Islamic region.

International Political Forum

A Chechen fighter stands near the government palace building during a short lull in fighting in Grozny, Chechnya. Image credit: Mikhail Evstafiev

The end of the Second Chechen War under President Putin seemed to mark his successful campaign to stem the extremist movement, while also re-establishing control of the former de-facto state. Putin’s statements made the objectives of Russia’s harsh line clear:

if extremist forces manage to get a hold in the Caucasus this infection may spread up the Volga River, spread to other republics, and we either face the full Islamization of Russia, or we will have to agree to Russia’s division into several independent states”. 

The fractioning of the Russian Federation may have been Putin’s biggest concern when dealing with Chechnya, yet he created a real threat from jihadists as a result of his hard line.  In the way of a self-fulfilling prophecy, terrorist tactics against the regime continued, furthering jihadist targeting.  Putin stated after attacks in 2004 that, “we are dealing not just with individual, isolated acts of terrorism. We are dealing with a direct intervention of ‘international terror’ against Russia, with a total, cruel, and all-powerful war, which again and again takes the lives of our fellow countrymen,”. By framing the terrorist act in the fight against global terrorism, Putin’s internationalizing of the issue served to legitimize his actions in Chechnya.

As the Chechen Wars created an actual dynamic of international terrorism in Russia by encouraging Islamic fundamentalists to aid their Muslim brothers in a battle against the harsh retaliation by Putin, his fears of a jihadist dynamic are not unfounded.  The Sunni roots of the Salafi-Jihadists furthered in strengthening Russia’s ties with Shiite regimes such as with Iran and Syria. Currently, Putin’s support of Syria’s regime could be viewed as a reflection his own falling popularity as president, coupled with its stagnating economy, and threats of unrest in the Caucasus. As Russia’s purported sphere of influence extends throughout Eurasia, Putin’s interest in maintaining the current regime in Syria mirrors his own efforts in putting down the Chechen separatists. It is this abject stance has led to its veto of any UN resolution on intervention in Syria.  Past Security Council resolutions granted by Russia abstaining were answered by regime change in Libya, when initial motives were to create a no-fly zone. For Russia, vetoing UN resolutions on Syria prevents the West from being granted a “blank check” by the international community to intervene. For Putin, Assad’s retaliation is legitimate, and he is following the same “playbook” as his in Chechnya. Putin summed up his hard line in a Washington Post article in that, “all opposition is deemed terrorist; overwhelming force is the sole response, without regard for civilian casualties”. If Assad’s actions can be terminated by the international community, it will set a precedent for interventionism that may then reflect on Putin’s own actions in Chechnya.

Recent efforts to address the civil war in Syria between the United States, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and President Putin have been limited. A Chatham House initiative held in April 2013, highlighted the role of U.S and Russian relations specifically as it discussed their cooperation and subsequent allies and how they may facilitate a peaceful solution. However, Russia’s role in supporting the regime in Syria seems to lie within its own strategic interests, with its only Mediterranean naval facility in Tartus, its regional relationship with Iran, the threat of Islamic movements in south-west Asia, as well as its profitable arms trade with the regime. However, in order to facilitate an international dialogue, the United States and Russia must find threads of commonality. The United States needs to convince Russia that by tipping its favor away from the current regime and instead look to the moderates of the opposition, it would preserve both states from the repercussions of military intervention including the threat of fighting a prolonged counterinsurgency, and the risk of spreading radicalization through the opposition’s al-Qaeda affiliated elements.

Moving away from military intervention

As Russia has much at stake and is invested in maintaining the status quo, Putin must be convinced that military responses will further destabilize the region as well as run against its own security interests. The nature of al-Qaeda and the spill over of the conflict into the surround regions make diplomatic efforts the only long-term solution. Russia’s recent pull out of its base in Tartus in June 2013, according to sources as a response to, “limit the dangers posed to Russians amid a raging civil war and to reduce the threat of political damage that could result from Russians being killed by either side” may mean that Russia is becoming aware of the long-term affects of military escalation. In addition, Saudi Arabia has offered economic incentives for Russia to decrease support for Assad, including a major arms deal that should make Putin think twice.  However it does not appear Putin has changed his tune. Russia still maintained warships in the region, most recently sending reconnaissance ships as a response to the presence of U.S warships in the region. As tensions escalate with the threat of U.S. military intervention, it is even more evident that a window for dialogue must open between Moscow and Washington; one that should recognise mutual interest away from military intervention.

About the Author

Virginia Winslow
Virginia is a recent graduate of Webster University’s Global M.A. in International Relations. During the one-year program she attended classes in London, Vienna, Bangkok, Leiden, and Geneva while interacting with each region’s international organizations such as the UN, Human Rights Watch, NATO and others. Now in London, she is currently working on her thesis on China at the Regent’s University campus. Along with interests in travel, culture and current events, she loves creative outlets, and began a jewelry company, Artemis, that focuses on fair trade while utilizing elements from around the world.


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