An Assessment Of Russia’s Policy In Syria – OpEd
By Press TV
By Hassan Beheshtipour
This article tries to answer the important question: To what extent does Russia’s policy in Syria conform to Iran’s policy and interests in this country?
To answer this basic question, we must first study Russia’s policy towards the ongoing developments in Syria. Then, we can answer the important question about commonalities and differences between the interests of Iran and Russia in Syria.It should be noted that Iran and Russia, like other countries, firstly seek to meet their own interests. Secondly, their publicly-announced policy does not necessarily correspond to their practical policy. The analysis provided in this article offers the author’s viewpoint about the two countries’ policies based on their official positions, on the one hand, and their diplomatic performance, on the other. Another important point is that the national interests of various countries may correspond to one another without necessarily translating into intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. Therefore, if Iran and Russia aim to reconcile Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with his opposition as a practical approach to establishing stability and security in this country, their measures cannot be labeled as intervention and violation of Syria’s sovereignty and the personal freedom of its nationals.
Russia’s interests and policy in Syria
The main goal and motivation behind Russia’s support for Assad and opposition to his enemies is based on Moscow’s national interests. But why supporting Assad can serve Russia’s interests? Answer: Russia’s national interests in Syria are tied to Assad’s fate for three major reasons:
1. Moscow is not willing to see a Western-minded government in Damascus as it sees such a government a threat to its long-term interests in Syria. Russia has signed strategic contracts with the Syrian government on all political, economic, and military levels and all of them will be in jeopardy if Assad’s government is toppled. This has already happened in the cases of the former Iraqi and Libyan dictators, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. The difference is that Saddam had invaded his neighbors — Iran and Kuwait, while Assad has not invaded any country. Gaddafi ruled as a dictator in Tripoli for 42 years and was not willing to make any reforms, while Assad has initiated a trend of major reforms over the past two years. Although, his reforms are implemented slowly, they encompass a broad scope to let the opposition participate in various areas. Therefore, Russia categorically rejects the charges against it of supporting a suppressive government on the strength of the implementation of large-scale reforms in Syria.
2. Assad’s opposition, in and out of Syria, form a wide spectrum, ranging from leftists to pro-Western and radical Islamist figures, none of which are considered by Moscow as a fit replacement for the establishment of a democratic government in Syria. The very fact that the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabi, and Qatar provide the Syrian opposition with unrestrained support has also helped the Russians make certain that the Arab Spring has been masterminded by the West, especially the US, to introduce their intended changes for the creation of, what they used to call back in 2005, the New Middle East. Therefore, the Russians are trying, by any means possible, to prevent the overthrow of Assad’s government, which is the last bastion of the Russian influence in the region so that they may not lose their position in the future arrangements of the Middle East.
3. Russia is firmly opposed to the empowerment of Islamist groups sympathetic to Salafis in Syria and interprets their ascent to power as the formation of a front with extremist Sunni tendencies, which can create problems for the Muslim community in Russia in the long run by the same token that Salafi and Wahhabi groups had influence among Chechnyan separatists.
Putin’s stances on support for Syria
The beginning of Putin’s third presidential term can further strengthen Russia’s position on Syria compared to the past. Because Moscow plays the Syrian card in its interactions with the US to lend balance to Washington’s stances. This provoked the sensitivity of Putin and his colleagues further, particularly after arming the anti-Assad forces in Syria was put on the agenda of the Turkish and US governments since supplying military support to Syrian rebels will imperil not only the Syrian national security, but also the security of such a strategic region as the Middle East.
As in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, arming popular or anti-government forces triggered a civil war in these countries. Therefore, Putin is trying to make the West digest the point that arming illegitimate forces in Syria is likely to cause insecurity in the whole Middle East region.
The Syrian people can make their minds about the next parliament or president by holding a general election or presidential polls in the future. So devising a strategy that can serve the long-term interests of Russia on the one hand and enabling the Syrian people to play a role in determining their fate without any illegitimate foreign intervention is Russia’s favorite option in the future of the Middle East.
Putin’s Challenges in Syria:
1) Russia sees itself in confrontation with the United States in the first place and has thus made a firm decision to prevent the coming to power of a pro-Western government in Syria. The assumption that Russia will arrive at a kind of deal or agreement with the United States over the departure of Assad, as it did in the case of [President Slobodan] Milosevic in Serbia, is far from reality and is less than five-percent likely to happen.
2) Russia seriously supports Kofi Annan’s peace plan since it gives international legitimacy to Assad as a party to the negotiations while the presence of US observers helps clarify the fact that the rebel forces have not limited their activities simply to a non-violent and peaceful struggle against the government, but are practically pushing Syria toward a civil war by taking such measures as launching bombing, shelling and missile attacks.
3) Russia has been facing challenges in its relations with Turkey over the Syrian crisis. [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is backing the opponents of Assad, particularly the anti-government forces affiliated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara perceived Syria’s past support for Turkish Kurds as an attempt by Damascus to interfere in Turkey’s internal affairs, however, the Turkish government is now openly assisting the opponents of Assad without considering it as interference in Syrian affairs.
This double-standard behavior is a pretext for Russia to sharply criticize Ankara as Turkey has deployed the NATO radar system in its soil, which Russia calls a threat to its national security. Turkey wants Syria’s Brotherhood to take the power from the ruling Alawites (Assad and his allies) with the help of pro-Western forces in the country. This issue is against Russia’s national and regional interests.
4. Russia is in conflict with France and Britain regarding its interests in Syria. Moscow has had serious problems with London over the past years and the Syrian crisis has deepened the divisions.
But starting challenges with France is not pleasant for Russia. Moscow has been faced with a fait accompli given the fact that [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy’s meddlesome policies in Syria cannot stand long due to his defeat in the presidential election.
Comparative comparison of the Russian and Iranian policies in Syria:
There is a wide range of commonalties between Iran and Russia regarding the developments in Syria.
1. From Iran’s point of view, Syria is a forefront against Israel’s expansionist policies and if a Western government comes to power in Syria, it would not favor Iran and the resistance movement. The Islamic Republic supports a government that is united with the resistance. From Russia’s point of view, this side of the story that a US-led government should not take power in Syria is close to Iran’s stance, but the view is different about an anti-Israeli and pro-resistance group.
2. Iran and Russia both support reforms in the current political system of Syria in order to give a wider role to the people in Syria, and believe that through peaceful means a solution could be found for cooperation between the Syrian government and the opposition.
3. Russia and Iran both oppose the interference of other countries for arming the Syrian opposition and they regard this issue as a foreground for crisis to sweep the region.
4. Russia and Iran both support Kofi Annan’s plan, but they are concerned about the role of UN monitors in the country and infiltrating inclinations among them.
5. Russia and Iran oppose a possible takeover of power by extremist Wahhabi groups linked to Saudi Arabia.
6. Russia and Iran are opposed to a foreign military intervention in Syria under any circumstances and reject any act of interference that deprives the Syrian people of the right to determine their own fate.
7. Russia and Iran regard the Syrian crisis not as an internal issue, but a potential regional and international crisis that would be resolved only under inclusive cooperation of all the parties involved.
Hassan Beheshtipour is a researcher, documentary producer, and a frequent contributor to Press TV. Hassan Beheshtipour was born on June 22, 1961 in the Iranian capital. He received his BA in Trade Economics from the prestigious Tehran University. His research topics span from US and Russian foreign policy to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. The Iranian analyst is currently busy with research on the 1979 US embassy takeover in Tehran.