Russia’s Syrian dilemma


Dramatic developments in and increasingly active diplomacy around Syria over recent weeks have given rise, internationally, to several strings of heated debate. The projection of this debate on Russia, and Russia's contribution into it, has taken vivid forms because of the ongoing presidential campaign and Moscow's official decision to adopt a distinct position on Syria.

Within Russia, the 'Arab Spring' debate has focused on the internal, regional and global sources and security implications of sudden regime changes across the Arab world. The vast majority of Russian experts and officials have shared the widespread view that the revolutions in North Africa and Yemen opened the door to the forces of chaos and presented extremists of all stripes with new opportunities. Pointing to the victory of Islamist parties in Egypt’selections and continuing political uncertainty in Libya, these observers proudly claim to havewarned, from the outset, that "it wasn't going to get better anyway". On these grounds, they strongly condemn foreign intervention in Libya as allegedly driven by the parochial interests of both Western powers and their Middle Eastern allies.

The second school of thought has emphasised the inevitability of the fall of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi and Saleh. Its proponents have argued that the revolutionary nations had no other choice but to remove their stale dictators. This line of argument suggests they will become pluralist democracies in the distant but visible future, even if that road first takes them through a period of Islamist rule.

Both groups of Russian observers, as well as their like-minded international counterparts, are engaged in a search for convenient facts and arguments to claim moral victory. Yet neither school of thought is likely to emerge as a winner because they both succumb to an inadequate deterministic view of reality. What they miss is the highly contingent nature of both international and domestic politics - a clear reflection of the probabilistic and uncertain nature of the world.

Across both the Middle East and beyond, the turbulence is so strong that any turn of events has become possible even in the short term, to say nothing about the more distant future. According to known Chinese observers, who could boast unrivalled strategic vision, two centuries are too early to call the results of a revolution. In such a context, to predict, for example, that the ultimate beneficiaries of the Arab revolts will be different from the social strata that implemented the change of regimes looks naively deterministic.

Given to uncritical determinism, both schools of thought fail to see the important role of risky gambles with unpredictable outcomes (as opposed to implementation of pre-meditated strategies) and limited-choice situations (as opposed to the intentional application of 'double standards') in world politics. It may be more exciting to discuss why France and the UK recognised the Libyan rebel government so early in the conflict when even its stakeholders (to say nothing of the outcome) were totally unclear. What drove President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron to gamble so hard when Gaddafi’s troops were closing in on Benghazi, with the Obama administration still undecided about the usefulness of an intervention? And even if such intervention was likely to happen at that point, no one could have predicted its result - as the actual course of events later demonstrated.

The second - ethical - question that escapes many Russian and international observers is whether the international community (including Russia) was left with a wide array of options after Colonel Gaddafi openly threatened to eviscerate a substantial part of the civilian population of Benghazi as his troops were bracing to enter the town. Posing this question appears similar to asking whether Soviet President Gorbachev had many decent choices available in 1990-91 when he was negotiating German reunification and the Soviet Union was unraveling on his watch. At the level of everyday life, one may ask himself whether he would feel deterred from punching a hooligan who has just insulted his female companion because the impending fight could "trigger instability" across the neighborhood or even the whole town (such things happened more than once in the world history). If he refrains from fighting, it would be for totally different reasons.

Assessment of the 'Arab Spring' has arguably informed the Russian approach to Syria. So far, Moscow's official line has been to avoid placing the blame for the hostilities exclusively on President Assad, and preventing any form of outside intervention in Syria.

Commentators have plausibly cited a whole variety of sources of the Russian position - from Moscow's concerns with further precedents of regime change to Russia's economic and strategic interests in Syria that would be expected to suffer should Assad fall. However, quite outside of the 'Arab Spring' context, one powerful consideration behind the Russian position on Syria has often remained overlooked. It is Moscow's apparent fear that Assad's demise may embolden the proponents - both within and beyond the region - of a military operation against Iran, and fast-track an anti-Iran coalition towards the use of force.

As long as doubts persist about the vulnerability of Iran's nuclear programme to air strikes so that regime change in Iran appears to be the only consensus goal justifying a military operation, Moscow becomes increasingly worried about the possible implications of this scenario. If an anti-Iran coalition is bogged down in protracted fighting across the Middle East, a galvanisation of the Islamic world and a dire humanitarian situation in Russia's southern neighbourhood will probably overshadow increased revenues from Russian oil exports. If the operation is successful and a government with a more favourable view of the West establishes itself in Tehran, Iran may promptly graduate from the sanctions regime. This will, in turn, change the whole geopolitics of oil and gas in Central Asia, opening up new transit routes and dealing Russia (and, possibly, China as well) a significant economic blow.

The importance of the Syria-Iran connection cannot be underestimated when the Russian position on Syria is analysed. Unlike highly ideological reactions to the 'Arab Spring', pure geopolitics seems to make the day here.

Mikhail Troitskiy is a political analyst in Moscow

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