Though Syria has somewhat fallen off the media radar in the West because of a Malaysian plane crashing into the Indian Ocean and Crimean referendum consequences booming across Europe, an on-going conflict and crisis continues in a critically important region of the world. The problems in Syria remain poorly understood in the West across the board, but especially so when it comes to understanding Russian strategy on Syria vis-à-vis the United States. The common US position has simply dismissed Russian initiatives as knee-jerk anti-Americanism: getting in the way for the sake of being a nuisance to American power. This is, in fact, incorrect: it is the somewhat myopic Western tendency to view the agendas of other states strictly through their relative positioning with the United States that blinds Western analysis to real motivations and prevents better analyses from being produced.
For example, the West on the whole wanted to see the Arab Spring more with optimism and hope, as a confirmation of its own principles and political ideals and a reflection that its engagement with the region paid off. Most Western politicians, therefore, have been reluctant to consider more cautious or even skeptical viewpoints about the long-term trajectories to come in its aftermath. Russia, however, with its unique perspective on radical Islamism because of the long and bloody conflict with Chechnya, has always been rightfully disturbed about what can emerge in the vacuum of authoritarian regime change where radical Islam already exists. While the West has been comfortable viewing the Arab Spring as a groundswell of grassroots democratic ideals and sought to actively encourage and support its development, Russia has warily seen it as a potential ‘Great Islamist Revolution.’ Keeping in mind the new regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya are not exactly blossoming with democratic institutions and stability and the Russian skepticism about Arab Spring futures seem somewhat affirmed. The issue, therefore, when it comes to Syria is not that Russia finds Assad superior and essential but simply that the status quo seems less chaotic and destabilizing to the region’s geopolitical future and to legitimate Russian national security interests.
Russia’s relationship with Syria has always hung on a pendulum, swinging from relatively close to relatively cool over the past half-century. What remains constant for Russia’s dealings with Syria, however, is its desire to ensure America is not the only legitimate actor with international influence in the region. To that end, Syria is an arena to help facilitate those endeavors. This goal of global recognition and legitimacy has a long and documented history within the Russian diplomatic psyche. Discussions about Russian material interests in Syria create significant scholarly debate. Many consider the commercial investments to be relatively modest and not part of any larger Syrian strategy. This view, however, is too economically quantitative, missing the greater esoteric foreign-policy point behind Russia’s commercial dealings: if the greatest national security objective for Russia is to maintain global diplomatic significance and international influence, then maintaining relevance within the Middle East must be a crucial part of the master plan. Syria is by far the most convenient partner for Russia in this endeavor. As such, Russian commercial initiatives are more about strategic allegiance and perceived political dependence and less about profit. This helps explain why Russia agreed to renegotiate Assad’s debt repayment in a manner that was extremely generous and beneficial to Syria: rather than a sign of weakness or incompetence, it was an effective strategic measure that tied Syria more tightly to the Russian sphere of influence, thereby keeping a Middle East doorway open. Commercial investiture in Syria is just one tool in the Russian diplomatic pouch to keep active and engaged within the Middle Eastern sphere. With this in mind, the expansiveness of Russia’s economic engagement with Syria becomes quite impressive.
In addition to the Arab Spring and commercial activity, foreign policy is a third aspect that elucidates a more nuanced analysis of Russia’s position on Syria. Russian foreign policy is witness to a much larger vision than simply fostering anti-American sentiment. Again, by no means do these foreign policy positions bind Russia inextricably to Assad. On the contrary, Russian foreign policy seems more pragmatic: it would not hesitate to drop support for his regime if it could see that it was ultimately going to fall. In other words, what was most important to Russia was its overall relevance in the region and that the region remained at peace and not vulnerable to radical Islamists. How close its friendship was with a particular leader or whether that particular leader remained in power was not nearly as relevant. Indeed, in 2013 President Putin himself declared, ‘we are not concerned about the fate of Assad’s regime…we are worried about…what next?’ He added that Russia’s position is ‘not to leave Assad’s regime in power at any price, but to first let Syrians agree among themselves how they should live next. Only then should we start looking at ways to change the existing order.’ When dealing with Syria, Russia is for Russia far more than for Assad. In addition, when Russia looked to the dilemmas and crises rising out of Damascus and across the Syrian countryside, it did not see other interested actors, like Iran and China for example, lining up to take a leading role in conflict resolution. American infatuation with seeing Assad deposed was regarded by the Russians as an incredibly rash and poorly thought out action that did not consider the long-term strategic consequences across the region. This alone was powerful reasoning that compelled many in the corridors of power in Moscow to act as they did.
What is most remarkable in all of these considerations is how little anti-Americanism factors as a foundational element. Russia’s interactions and support for Syria have more to do with its desire for diplomatic/political influence and legitimate national security objectives than they do with Cold War nostalgia or knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Russia sees its rightful place as a diplomatic player with independent operating power and as the only state truly able to balance the influence of America in the Middle East. Though difficult for observers in the West to believe, many outside of Washington and the EU did not see American positions toward Syria as generally promoting peace but saw them rather exacerbating the violence further by blindly supporting questionable opposition groups that may have been against Assad but were also not for democracy. When Russia voiced its opposition against such groups it saw itself not as a force that worsened the conflict but rather as the one state truly trying to contain the violence from exploding uncontrollably. Many Western diplomats tended to just assume anti-American sentiment always informed such Russian strategy. Still others backed up the perception by emphasizing how Russia defended the Syrian regime against Western pressure, used delay tactics and disrupted repeated US efforts to ‘resolve’ the crisis. These arguments are overstated, as is the conventional wisdom that supposes many of Russia’s contemporary positions have not evolved beyond the residue of Cold War mentalities. That residue, quite honestly, seems to exist more in the minds of scholars and practitioners in the West rather than in the diplomatic institutions of Russia itself.
Ultimately, what has been largely missed in contemporary debates about Syria in the West is how Russia views the conflict from perspectives that do not place America and American interests as the chief priorities. Concern over long-term American ‘visions’ in Syria is real for Russia not because it must automatically oppose America but because Russia thinks America is absent-mindedly pushing Syria into chaos. When American analysts downplay these concerns and focus instead on perceived anti-Americanism as the primary motivating factor they lessen the ability to properly understand how the Syrian crisis continues to evolve and how major players may react to and interact with certain crisis stimuli. In other words, the American tendency to make itself the sun in a Copernican foreign policy universe handicaps the United States by impairing its diplomatic vision and retarding its options for real interaction and cooperation. There is indeed a Cold War residue in the world today. But that residue, unfortunately, is not being pushed by the Russians.
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.