External Affairs

Why Russia is Right to Choose the Bad in Syria for Fear of the Worse

Where the West has vacillated between trying to force Assad’s departure and resisting the spread of ISIS, Moscow has been clear-eyed and hardheaded: the top goal is to “defeat, degrade and destroy” the terrorist group.

File photo from 2012 of Syrians holding photos of Assad and Putin during a pro-regime protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria. Credit: Freedom House/Flickr CC 2.0

File photo from 2012 of Syrians holding photos of Assad and Putin during a pro-regime protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria. Credit: Freedom House/Flickr CC 2.0

Poor Vladimir Putin. The Russian president clearly missed the memo that the US-led West is the anointed ruler of the world and its president is He Who Must Be Obeyed.

Washington is the sole judge of the legality and legitimacy of its own and everyone else’s behaviour. Its invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein – on a trumped up pretext – was not an example of great power aggression in the 21st century because Americans say it was not. US senators and officials joining street protests to overthrow the elected government of Ukraine is exporting democracy, a fine US tradition. Russian opposition to the new leader installed in Kiev by a putsch is proof of revanchism and reclaiming Crimea – whatever the Crimeans might want – is brutal aggression.

Washington’s subordination of American values to US interests is realism; Russian violation of global norms is cynicism. At West Point on May 28, 2014, President Barack Obama insisted: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it.” In his speech to the UN General Assembly on 24 September, Obama affirmed: “all of us – big nations and small – must meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms.” Barely five months apart, the two statements are not compatible. No country that reserves the right to use military force unilaterally is committed to obeying global norms. Indeed the second criticised Russia for actions in Crimea and Ukraine undertaken to defend its core interests.

Why must there be consequences for Russia but not for the US for their respective resorts to force? Few Russians understood the subtlety of the West’s distinction between its own actions in Kosovo in 1999 and Russia’s actions in Crimea in 2014. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – who was Russia’s representative to the United Nations in 1999 – complained: “Attempts by those who staged the secession of Kosovo from Serbia … to question the free will of Crimeans cannot be viewed as anything but a flagrant display of double standards.”

Good guys and bad guys

The West similarly believes that in the Middle East, it decides who are the bad guys and good guys; which groups to target with air strikes; which country is allowed to keep an undeclared nuclear arsenal and which must never be permitted to get the bomb. If Washington says any leader has to go, the only proper response is: How soon and where to? If chaos, anarchy and mass violence reign as national institutions are destroyed and the country reduced to wasteland, that only proves how ungrateful the natives are for not garlanding the virtuous liberators with flowers and singing Kumbaya as peace, good governance and prosperity break out. How was Washington to know the extremists would quickly occupy the power vacuum its invasion created? Just because this has happened every time before does not prove it is an immutable law of Middle East politics.

Whatever gave Putin the idea that Russia has any role to play in the Middle East – did he not read the companion memo that Russia was defeated in the Cold War and should fade quietly into history’s night as a once-great power? Not for him to prop up Bashar al Assad as the lesser evil. We can’t know that for certain until we have tried the alternatives. Western support for rebel groups may not have ousted Assad yet and may have prolonged the violent instability, but we meant well and it’s the thought that counts.

Why Syria matters

Unfortunately, Russia is not as easily intimidated now as it was in Kosovo in 1999 and Putin refuses to listen any longer to Washington’s fables and London’s fairy tales. Mark Twain supposedly said God created war so Americans could learn geography. A cursory glance at the map shows Syria to be a lot closer to Russia than to the US. And Russia’s military capacity to protect its interests in the Middle East would be vastly more difficult if Crimea were to be detached from its control.

Moscow’s pragmatic calculations include stopping the export of jihadist extremism to Russian regions like Chechnya, arms sales to client regimes, protecting a Russian naval supply base at Tartus, and fears of a loss of international credibility if an ally is abandoned under pressure from abroad. The Sunni–Shia domestic and regional divide is also important. The Saudi and Turkey-led Sunni crescent is firmly pro-Western and indifferent to Russia. Syria is a key Russian bulwark against US interests in the Middle East, so Moscow has little to lose in regional relations by backing Syria.

Like Obama in domestic US politics, Putin too is vulnerable to internal critics from the right for any sign of weakness in dealing with the West and concerns over the possible north-eastward flow of volatility. He is not going to lose popularity by pointing the finger of blame at Western intelligence and special forces for chaos around Russia’s periphery and in the Middle East. A UN veto is a risk-free assertion of Russian boldness, independence and defiance. It is a useful reminder that Russia still matters, if only as a spoiler. The veto has been used many times to protect Assad.

Two years ago, the US administration was intensely irritated that others refused to line up behind its planned punitive military strikes on Assad. But the rest of the world saw policy confusion, selective indignation seeped in double standards and unproven allegations, lack of clarity on goals and means, and a determination to enforce humanitarian norms inside other countries’ sovereign jurisdictions by flouting higher-order global norms on restrictions on the threat and use of force internationally. The latter are much more critical to most countries’ national security and international stability.

Russian role in Chemical Weapons solution

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with senior advisers, negotiate the Syrian chemical weapons agreement on September 14, 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of State

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with senior advisers, negotiate the Syrian chemical weapons agreement on September 14, 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of State

On August 21, 2013, chemical weapons were used to attack civilians in a Damascus suburb, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Assertions by Western governments that Assad was the guilty party would not do after the dodgy dossiers fiasco on Iraq in 2003. China and Russia demanded hard proof. In a subsequent analysis, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh concluded that the Obama administration, like Bush with respect to Iraq in 2003, had cherry-picked facts and intelligence.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that Syria submit to US authority and surrender to American might. What Russia did instead was to subject Syria to international law and UN authority by signing the Chemical Weapons Convention and having its chemical weapons stockpile and infrastructure verifiably destroyed and dismantled by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

With some Western governments itching to intervene militarily, given the complexities and potential risks of military entanglement, Russia’s previous attitude was described by a Russian Middle East expert as: “in a race across a minefield it is wise to let other runners overtake you.” Now that Moscow has escalated its military involvement, Russia could suffer significant casualties on the Syrian minefield. But if Putin succeeds in killing the Islamic State virus, he will have earned the world’s gratitude. This should be a win-win situation for the West: either the Russians clean up the mess created partly by non-stop Western meddling in affairs they do not understand, or else they get trapped in a quagmire.

Clear and present danger

Self-deluding fantasy notwithstanding, hardline Islamists quickly took over the anti-Assad insurgency that had begun as a genuinely popular and peaceful uprising and was crushed by brute force. This year, a sizeable number of US intelligence analysts let it be known that they were unhappy at facts and analyses being cherry-picked to fit the administration’s upbeat narrative regarding ISIS gains and losses. To recall the pragmatic wisdom of China’s late strongman Deng Xiaoping, the cat’s colour does not matter so long as it catches the mice. Peace will remain elusive in Iraq and Syria until ISIS is defeated. If the price of Syrian and Middle Eastern stabilisation is the survival of Assad as a secular dictator, is that really such a bad outcome compared to the anarchy unleashed in Iraq and Libya by the ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ promoting West?

Like Yogi Berra, when he comes to a fork in the road, Obama believes in taking it. Where the West has vacillated between trying to force Assad’s departure and resisting the spread of jihad, Moscow has been clear-eyed and hardheaded: the top goal is to “defeat, degrade and destroy” (an Obama slogan) the jihadist threat for which Assad is a necessary partner. Moscow has even urged the West to make common cause on this. Recalling Churchill, the Americans are not done yet with exhausting all other options.

As the conservative US politician Patrick Buchanan asked in his blog on 17 September, a collapse of the Assad regime “would result in a terrorist takeover, the massacre of thousands of Alawite Shiites and Syrian Christians, and the flight of millions more refugees into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — and thence on to Europe. Putin wants to prevent that. Don’t we?”

Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University