May 19, 2013
Why Russia Just Can’t Quit Syria’s Dictator
Posted on Feb 6, 2012
By Ivo Mijnssen
Russia is willing to play a big gamble to assert its interests. In response to the appearance of American warships off the coast of Syria, Russia dispatched a flotilla under the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to Tartus, which the Syrian government received with military honors in January. This demonstration of military strength shows that Russia largely ignores the domestic reasons for the violence in Syria and instead considers the conflict mostly from a geopolitical point of view. Official Russian media have consistently accused the Gulf states and the United States of funding the opposition in Syria. This is not entirely false, as documents released by WikiLeaks last spring have shown.
However, the American government’s stance on Syria has been anything but aggressive. After the Iraq withdrawal and the struggling mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. seems rather weary of getting too involved in another country with complicated conflicts and blurred front lines. For Russia, however, support for the opposition from Western nations and the Gulf states seems to be enough to believe official Syrian assertions that the entire opposition is guided from abroad and thus illegitimate. Russia apparently still believes that Assad can maintain stability. The fact, however, that he has not been able to end the conflict in Syria in spite of using ruthless military force against civilians and offering an amnesty makes it doubtful that he will be able to hold on to power for much longer. Russia has shifted its position slightly in recent days and invited the regime and opposition to negotiations in Moscow. The opposition rejected the proposal, demanding that Assad step down first.
The Kremlin risks international isolation with its uncompromising stance on Syria. Western and Arab diplomats reacted to Russia and China’s Feb. 4 veto in the Security Council against an already watered down resolution with anger and harsh criticism. At the same time, it is doubtful whether Russia’s support for a Shiite ruler’s suppression of a mostly Sunni rebellion will contribute to weakening separatist forces in Russia’s own backyard (Russia’s Muslim population in the Caucasus is mostly Sunni).
The proponents of harsher actions against Syria in the Gulf states and the West, however, appear equally confused about how to deal with the Syrian unrest. Belaeff thus believes that Russia might actually play an oddly useful role for its international opponents: “In a perverse way, Russia may be doing the West a favor by its efforts to prevent a Western intervention, which would be prohibitively costly and Pyrrhic for the West.” In the meantime, Syrians are dying.
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