By Dr. Theodore Karasik
Some observers of the Moscow-Damascus relationship point out that arms sales and the strategic positioning of a loyal Kremlin client are the main reasons behind Russia’s persistence of supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashir Assad. Besides arms contracts worth $4bn including MiG 29 fighter jets, Yak-130 jet trainers, Pantsir and Buk air-defense systems, P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles, Russia’s investment in Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism amounts to $19.4bn in 2009. Stroitransgaz is building a natural gas processing plant 200km east of Homs and is providing the technical support for the Arab gas pipeline. The Tatarstan-based Tatneft began pumping Syrian oil last year and in January announced that it would spend $12.8m drilling wells near the Iraqi border. However there may be other reasons behind this relationship that need to be brought to the forefront to better understand the factors at play.
First, is the issue of Russian pride. Russia lost Libya even thought Moscow tried to play both sides and now the Kremlin sees that Syria may slip always too. The Kremlin announced that Russia would be sending the aircraft-carrying missile cruiser, Admiral Kuznetsov, and two escort ships on a two-month tour of the Mediterranean and would be dropping in on the Syrian port of Tartus. Six hundred Russian technicians are currently working there to renovate it as a base for Russian ships. A consignment of Russian Yankhont anti-ship cruise missiles also arrived in Syria. But behind these military movements, there is another reason. Moscow is opposed to the idea of international action and regime change imposed from outside of a country. The reason is based on a deep paranoia that the same remedy could be applied to the countries of the former Soviet Union—or indeed Russia itself. Consequently, Russia has taken a sympathetic stance towards the civil unrest and continued bloodshed and supported the Assad government. The Kremlin has remained staunchly against sanctions aimed at debilitating the vehement Assad government, and filibustered countless efforts by the UN and other international bodies to criticize the violence. Consequently, Syrian protesters have publicly burned the Russian flag in fury at Moscow’s obstruction.
The issue of pride is also present in some doctrinal aspects of Russian thinking about her place on the world stage. Increasingly what we are witnessing is the possible implementation of the “Russian Doctrine” or the “Sergius’ Project” begun in 2005 (St. Sergius of Radonezh is considered “the eternal protector and patron of Russia at times of hardship.”) around the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s second term. The proponents of this idea are writers, publicists, historians, and philosophers from the conservative Orthodox milieu. Understanding their arguments might help explain where we are now and what may happen next. The doctrine seemed to function as a rational for the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Basically, the “Russian Doctrine” seeks to illuminate Russia’s role in the world and represents a swing back to pan-Slav nationals who see Russia as “The Third Rome” in the name of Russian Orthodox Christianity. They regard the West as corrupt and dismiss Western styles of democracy. This school is now ascending over the second camp, known as Westernizers, who seek a European-style democratic state in which culture, rather than military force, plays a central role. I n such a system the state would not be allowed to become stronger than society.
What is important to understand is that these ideas are not new but steeped in Russian history and are being brought forward into the 21st century and beyond. For the authors, Russia is emerging from an unequal fight against the West where Russia played by foreign rules leading to havoc (smutnoye vremia) at the end of the 20th century that threatened Russian “spiritual sovereignty.” Both Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin seek to reverse this decline—an idea both men have been nurturing since 1 January 2000 when Boris Yeltsin resigned and the 21st century began. Some Russian academics argue that there will not be a global order dominated by several civilizations or superpowers. Instead, the “Northern civilization” will present an alternative to the West and will replace its dominance in the world. Other countries and peoples will gravitate towards the “Northern civilization.” Russian academics see Russia as the last center of the world –the Third Rome– until the end of humanity. They reiterate the idea that Russia has been raised above other countries by God and, therefore, God demands more from the Russian Nation than from other nations. What is happening in the Near East now is part of God’s design and Moscow feels to be the “Un-NATO” when regarding Syria as a special, unique, calling.
Second, is the fact that there is a population of Circassians living in Syria who still hold direct ties to their relatives in the Northern Caucausus. Syria is home to approximately 150,000 Circassians about half of whom live in Hauran province who retain their linguistic characters from Adyghe in the Northern Caucausus. The Circassians are considered a warrior class and participated in many Syrian military campaigns and police actions over the decades. They are secular and supporters of the Assad regime and generally before the outbreak of violence in Syria, fared well with the other faiths found in the country. Russia is clearly interested in the safety and security of this population as it does not want to have more violence break out in its territory if this population becomes agitated throughout its diaspora. To further illustrate the point, Russia’s fears about a civil war developing in Syria are geostrategic. According to Russian Near East experts, they compare Syria to Russia’s own region of Dagestan in the North Caucasus. In Dagestan is patchwork of competing tribes, religions, ethnicities and loyalties. Other Russian regions are also susceptible including Kabardino-Balkaria. Russian fears of a Lebanese-style civil war breaking out in Syria, with the country fissuring on sectarian lines. Thus, Russian support to the Syrian government takes into consideration the Circassian community.
Third is the personal relationship between the Assad family and Moscow. Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad met in January of 2005. Following this meeting in Moscow, relations seemed to improve dramatically. A personal connection was made between Assad and Putin. At this point Syrian debt to Russia was as high as $13.4 billion and thus Moscow wanted to make sure that she anchored herself strongly with the Assad regime. Moscow agreed to write off 73 percent of Syria’s debt to Russia with the remaining $3.618 billion to be paid off in installments, with Syria paying $170 million on the debt in 2005 with only $1.5 billion of the remaining sum will be repaid in ‘cold cash’ over the next 10 years. The Syrian side will invest the rest in joint projects within Syria. Bilateral security relations grew as well and Syrian expats now work in the Russian Federation in numerous industries. This relationship is tight enough that some Moscow-based observers feel that Assad and his family may be given sanctuary in Russia.
In conclusion, Russia will continue to fight hard against any type of intervention in Syria and try all her might to prevent the toppling of the Assad regime. For Moscow, Syria represents a frontier that cannot be lost because of the broader implications for the Russian Federation itself. For the GCC, the above findings need to be taken into consideration when trying to understand Russia position on Syria and specifically. The roughing up of the Russian Ambassador to Qatar at the Doha International Airport signals that tougher times are ahead for Russian-GCC relations as Syria moves towards the brink of disaster.
Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director, Research and Consultancy, INEGMA