By Murhaf Jouejati
Assuming that the Assad regime is about to collapse — many indications support this assumption — Russian-Syrian relations are set to go south in the post-Assad era. This conclusion is based on what one Syrian opposition leader who prefers to remain anonymous described as “outrageous” Russian behavior throughout the Syrian uprising that began on March 15, 2011.
On Feb. 4, 2012, Russia (along with China) vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime’s crackdown on protests. The draft resolution also called on President Bashar Al-Assad to step down. Confident, thanks to the veto, that external force would not be used against his regime, Assad exploited the Security Council’s divisions by escalating his security forces’ brutality. He hoped to crush Syria’s protest movement, especially in the city of Homs where the uprising was centered, thereby adding hundreds of deaths to the thousands of Syrian civilian casualties. Six months ago, Russia (and China) vetoed an earlier draft resolution that threatened Damascus with targeted sanctions.
In both instances, Moscow argued that the draft resolutions were not balanced, and blamed the violence on the protest movement’s armed elements, even though the latter are soldiers who preferred to defect rather than shoot at their civilian countrymen. Moscow further argued that the crisis in Syria would better be resolved by Syrians themselves through a political dialogue. Yet dialogue is impossible given the Assad regime’s pursuit of what it calls “the security solution.”
In between these two vetoes, and to emphasize Moscow’s determination to support its beleaguered junior ally, a Russian flotilla led by an aircraft carrier docked in the Syrian port of Tartous, followed four days later by the Russian ship Chariot that carried what the Cypriot foreign ministry called “dangerous cargo”. Furthermore, Moscow defiantly approved the sale to Syria of 36 YAK-130 advanced training jets worth $550 million.
By supporting the Assad regime throughout the Syrian crisis, Russia is among a handful of states that are isolating themselves from the international community.
To be sure, Russian justifications are not taken seriously. At play are Moscow’s attempts to advance Russian interests. For decades, the former Soviet Union has been Syria’s largest supplier of military hardware; Russia currently holds about $4 billion worth of contracts for future arms deliveries to Damascus. In these circumstances, Moscow is not prepared to drop its long-time Syrian client, especially now that it has lost arms sales to Iran following United Nations sanctions against that country. Furthermore, Russia is determined to maintain its grip on Tartous — the only port outside the former Soviet Union where Russian ships enjoy unique anchoring privileges.
Over and above all this, however, is the need for Moscow to reassert its authority. President-elect Vladimir Putin was not about to defer to or show weakness vis-à-vis the West on the eve of Russian presidential elections. The crisis in Syria and western attempts to punish the Assad regime for its horrific human rights abuses were an excuse and an opportunity for Moscow to display its displeasure with NATO’s Libya operation. Moscow felt hoodwinked by NATO forces whose military intervention ultimately forced regime change in that country — a step beyond the UN Security Council’s mandate to protect Libyan civilians from the late Moammar Qaddafi’s murderous security forces. In sum, Russia needed to beat its chest and flex its muscles so as to reassert its global influence — at the expense of hundreds of Syrian civilian lives.
In so doing, Russia has positioned itself on the wrong side of history. The crisis in Syria is not a conflict between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime but between the regime and the majority of the Syrian people. Further, it is part and parcel of the “Arab Spring” in which the masses, from Morocco to Bahrain, have, with varying degrees of success, revolted against their tyrannical rulers. Moscow, in its obstinate support of the Assad regime, may have gambled on the wrong horse. Despite the cosmetic political reforms that Assad says he will soon implement and that Putin himself thinks “should have been carried out long ago”, indications are that the Assad regime will collapse. The security option the Assad regime adopted has only served to amplify the crisis.
With presidential elections behind him, president-elect Putin faces less pressure to demonstrate his bravado to his domestic constituency. The hope is that he will shift gears and join the rest of the international community in bringing relief to the Syrian people. The meeting that Russia’s foreign minister is reportedly set to hold with his Arab counterparts in the next few days provides such a forum. Even then, however, the long shadow Moscow has cast over future Russian-Syrian relations is there to stay. Syrians have a long memory: they will not forget easily, or soon, that Russia was a willing accomplice in the murder of innocent Syrian civilians.
Murhaf Jouejati is professor of Middle East studies at the Washington-based National Defense University’s NESA Center for Strategic Studies and adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.