For more than three years, Russia’s top diplomats have time and again assured American, Arab, and European policymakers that they are not wedded to President Bashar al-Assad.
But with Russian airplanes escalating an air campaign against the groups trying to oust the beleaguered Syrian leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing just how far he’ll go to keep Assad — Moscow’s key surviving Arab ally — in power.
Saving Assad from meeting the same fate as other regional despots like Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi and Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak is emerging as a key facet of Russia’s Middle East strategy. By propping up one of the region’s most vilified leaders, Moscow is sending a powerful message about its willingness to act aggressively in a region where many of America’s closest allies are feeling insecure — and questioning Washington’s commitment to have their backs in the future.
“The region is falling apart, and states are collapsing, and the Russians are willing to intervene to protect their interests and assert their power, and the United States is not,” said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“[Middle Eastern countries] want assertiveness and consistency, and they have not found that from the Obama administration,” Tabler added. “Even if you don’t back what the Russians are doing in Syria, people admire them because they are willing to put their money where their mouth is — as well as troops.”
There has long been little doubt that Syria, a longstanding military ally, is a critical piece in Russia’s security strategy in the Middle East.
The Syrian coastal city of Tartus hosts Russia’s only major naval port on the eastern Mediterranean. Some 800 to more than 2,000 Russian jihadis have traveled to Syria to help fight in the country, as well as in Iraq, according to estimates from the Russian Foreign Ministry and independent experts. Since the Syrian conflict began in early 2011, Russia has provided invaluable diplomatic support to the Assad regime, casting vetoes multiple times to prevent the adoption of U.N. resolutions aimed at nudging him from power.
Last month, Moscow intervened militarily at Assad’s invitation, launching airstrikes against what it said were targets linked to the Islamic State, but in actuality hammering the Syrian opposition forces seeking to bring down the regime. It is now considering the deployment of irregular Russian troops, or “volunteers,” to carry out ground operations. On Wednesday, Syrian forces began a ground offensive as Russian warplanes blasted targets throughout western Syria, according to the Washington Post.
Russia maintains that it is fighting a war against extremists, including the Islamic State and al Qaeda. It has denounced the United States and its European and Arab allies for seeking the removal of Assad, saying their blasé tendency to topple regimes that fall out of favor is condemning the Middle East and North Africa to a future consumed by chaos.
“Saddam Hussein, hanged. Is Iraq a better place, a safer place?” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rhetorically asked reporters at U.N. headquarters last month. “Qaddafi murdered — you know in front of viewers. Is Libya a better place? Now we are demonizing Assad. Can we try to draw lessons?”
U.S. policymakers believe that Putin is seeking to shore up his political popularity at home and bolster Russia’s regional influence, as well as embarrass Obama, who has pursued a cautious policy aimed at limiting U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. At a minimum, the United States believes Russia’s intervention is aimed at strengthening Assad’s hands in the event that a future political settlement is required to end the four-and-a half-year civil war that has left nearly 250,000 dead and triggered the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Most of the casualties have been blamed on Assad, whose forces regularly use lethal barrel bombs that are feared for their destructive force — and imprecise nature.
U.S. and Western officials seem to be placing their bets on Russia failing in its push to keep Assad in power and on Putin ultimately realizing that the only Syria exit strategy requires that Russia push the strongman out of office in exchange for playing a leading role in picking his successor.
Obama has mocked Putin’s military strategy as an act of desperation that will plunge Russia into a Middle East quagmire. Earlier this month, Obama reiterated the hope that Moscow will realize the folly of propping up a despised leader with no support at home “at the risk of alienating the entire Sunni world.”
“Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr. Assad, was crumbling,” Obama said at an Oct. 2 White House press conference. “We reject Russia’s theory that everybody opposed to Assad is a terrorist. We think that is self-defeating. It will get them into a quagmire. It will be used as a further recruitment tool for foreign fighters.”
Russia, though, seems committed to keeping Assad in power for as long as possible.
As far back as June 2012, Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, assured the United States and other key U.N. Security Council members that Moscow was not “wedded” to Assad. But he made clear that any decision regarding Assad’s fate would have to be determined by his own government and that Moscow would not force the Syrian leader’s hand or seek to name his successor.
That same month in New York, I sat down with Churkin at the Russian mission to the U.N. on East 67th Street over tea and cookies and asked him explain his country’s seemingly unshakeable commitment to the Syrian leader.
At the time, the Syria conflict was in its second year, and only 54,000 people were believed to have been killed. Russia was blocking a push for an Arab League plan for political transition that would have paved the way for Assad’s departure from power.
What was motivating Russia’s support for Assad’s government, I asked. Was it fear that the ouster of Assad would fuel terrorism that could reach back to Russia? Or was it concern that the ouster would undercut Russia’s interests in its naval base at Tartus?
Churkin said he would leave it to policymakers back home to calculate Russia’s national interests.
From a personal standpoint, he said, he considered it a matter of national honor to stand up for Russia’s friends. “We are stronger on our allegiances than others, I think, and this is being recognized internationally,” he said. “Being a Russian diplomat, for us, if you have good relations with a country, a government, for years, for decades, then it’s not so easy to ditch those politicians and those governments because of political expediency.”
Churkin’s remarks appeared aimed at the United States, which had overthrown Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and stood aside as Mubarak was pushed from power and ultimately replaced by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States had made peace with Qaddafi in 2006, only to cut him loose after leading what it described as a limited military intervention designed to prevent a mass slaughter in the city of Benghazi. Russia abstained on the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the intervention in Libya and later cited Qaddafi’s fall as further evidence that the West cynically invokes human rights to mask its efforts to remove regimes that have fallen from favor.
Churkin suggested that other leaders in the region would realize that when push comes to shove Russia could be trusted more than the United States to back its friends.
Three years later, the region’s newest leaders appear to have taken note.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former general who toppled Morsi in a 2013 coup, meanwhile, has paid four visits to Moscow since taking power.
Putin, meanwhile, was the first foreign leader of a major power to visit Cairo after Sisi’s coup.
The Russian leader received a “hero’s welcome,” with an Egyptian military band playing the Russian national anthem and school children chanting, “Putin, Putin, Sisi, Sisi,” according to an account in the Financial Times.
“I am filled with joy that President Vladimir Putin visits Cairo at this time to confirm Russia’s solidarity with Egypt in its war against terrorism,” Sisi told Putin, adding that the two countries would discuss stepped-up military cooperation.
But Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, which remains bitterly opposed to Russian support for Assad, have nevertheless been building bridges with Putin. In June, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, visited Putin in St. Petersburg, where he signed a number of agreements to share nuclear technology and step up cooperation in the oil and space exploration fields.
Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has traditionally enjoyed cool relations with Putin, visited Moscow last month to lobby the Russian leader to do his best to ensure that advanced weapons in Syria won’t be used to help arm Hezbollah, with whom Israel fought a devastating war in 2006.
The “depth” of Egypt’s and other Arab governments’ relations with Russia may be “very shallow,” said Michael Hanna, an expert on Egypt at the Century Foundation. In times of crisis in relations with the United States, Arab governments “will try to curry favor with Moscow. And in some ways, it’s easy. Moscow asks no questions about human rights and democracy and elections — they just don’t care.”
But Hanna added: “I think there is a bizarre kind of grudging respect in parts of the Arab world for what they see as Russian steadfastness and decisiveness in contrast to what they perceive as the dithering of the United States.”
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