Few Notes on Russia’s Policy Towards Syria & the Middle East

Moscow / May 21, 2012

A successful return by Russia as a major player in the Middle East requires more than the ability to play the role of spoiler of perceived American policies and designs in the region. Russia has to adopt her own clear policies and objectives. Else, Russia’s longer term interests in the region will be hurt, and her ability to spoil others’ policies would eventually backfire.

Forming such objectives and approaches calls for developing a better grasp of the current political and demographic shifts in the region and their basic underlying causes.

Thinking of the current developments in the region, the so-called Arab Spring, as an Islamic Revolution, simply because Islamic parties and movements have been able to capitalize on it more successfully than liberal and secular parties shows a woeful misunderstanding of realities on the ground, and a willingness to accept the Islamists’ own self-serving interpretation of current developments.

If anything, the current revolutions demonstrate how irrelevant ideological parties have become over the last few years. The people in our region are not rebelling for ideological reasons, but for more pragmatic and practical considerations. They simply want better lives and are tired of ideologies.

Victories by Islamic groups and parties in Tunisia and Egypt come as a reflection of their ability to be better organized and funded, and to project themselves as the new untried forces when it comes to the exercise of political authority while secular nationalist groups have been portrayed as having been part of the anciens régimes which have for long projected themselves as secular and nationalist in nature.

The net result is more complex than these developments suggest. Islamist control of the political process in these two countries would likely prove ephemeral, and is surely far from total. In reality, Islamists have to contend with the existence of other political forces on the ground, and they have to make plenty of compromises in order to stay relevant to the political processes that brought them to power. So long as military and security apparatuses remain far from their control, and so long as their economies remain tied to influx of foreign aid and the need to accommodate the demands of foreign tourists and officials, their early triumphalist statements and attitudes will have to give way to a heavy dose of pragmatism.

Still, Islamism is not an ephemeral phenomenon and will remain part of the political processes for decades to come. Realism, therefore, dictates agreeing policies for engaging Islamist parties and groups to explore potential areas where cooperation and accommodation are possible and not simply necessary. This applies as much to other political forces on the ground as it does to external players with interests in the region.

Russian policymakers pride themselves on their cold rational realism, but their current stands on changes taking place in the region, especially their policies towards Syria, reflect an irrational knee-jerk reaction to the situation and a desire to stick-it to the Americans rather than cold rationalism.

The Syrian Revolution did not in any way, shape or form jeopardize Russia’s strategic interests in Syria,  not until Russian officials began speaking against it and expressing support for Assad while adopting his foolish version of things and insisting on supplying him with arms, effectively making themselves partners in his crimes. It’s only then that we began seeing protesters in the streets burning Russian flags.

True, Russia’s policy towards Syria are not just premised on what’s happening in Syria alone, but on what is happening in the region as a whole, and the view espoused by many Russian analysts and policymakers that the current upheavals are nothing more than Islamist Revolutions. Relations with the U.S. with all its complexity is also at play here, so do calculations related to domestic policy and to policy regarding other regions.

Still, considering how many geopolitical interests tend to intersect in Syria, the current situation there has implications far beyond her borders, and the implications for Russia’s long-term interests in the region are definitely substantial.

The reality is that a resolution for the situation in Syria involving end to Bashar Al-Assad regime can be found without Russia’s help. The current dithering by the Obama Administration should not be mistaken for complete lack of resolve, or an unwillingness to go the distance, irrespective of what Russia thinks. Elections notwithstanding, there are any number of reasons or developments that can compel the Obama Administration to take serious and immediate action on Syria within a short period of time, without needing to go to the UN or consult the Russians. Tragic events are happening in Syria everyday, as such, excuses to draw a line and embark on an interventionist course are being offered every day. The moment the Administration reaches consensus on the important issues of alternatives and scenarios for intervention, it’s game over. This could take weeks or months. Or it could happen tomorrow.

Should change in Syria take place while the Russians are continuing to supply weapons to Assad and provide him with political support, Russia will have to forfeit any interest she has in the country for the foreseeable future. Her interests elsewhere in the region could also be severely and perhaps irrevocably damaged. No amount of pragmatism can allow a future government in Syria to forgive and forget in these circumstances.

Russia’s leadership seems to have drawn a line in the sand on the issue of intervention and change in Syria, but without having a clear strategic vision and clear policy objectives regarding Russia’s interests in the region, this move has trapped Russia and undermined her ability to be flexible and, therefore, to expect flexibility from the other side on a host or problem issues and areas that could arise in the future.

Russia has a limited window of opportunity now to recalibrate her policy vis-a-vis the situation in Syria in view of retaining some relevance regarding future political processes in that country, and the region as a whole. Freezing arms shipment to the Assads and announcing that she will not oppose a new UN resolution premised on Chapter 7 against the regime is a good starting point. This step might allow Russia to be invited to a future dialogue concerning the transition process in Syria.

Standing against the winds of change in the Middle East just because change promises to be unpredictable and complex is not policy: it’s folly. The only way Russia can remain relevant and influential in future political processes in the region is to take a more proactive stand towards managing change alongside the Americans, the Europeans and other international players, but above all, alongside the peoples of the region.