Monumental miscalculation? Russia’s strategic interests in Syria and its defense of the al-Assad regime

Russia has blocked Security Council resolutions on Syria (e.g., in October, 2011) and has been dragging its heels in the current Security Council debate over endorsement of the Arab League plan for a peaceful transition in Syria, which in its original version called for Bashar al-Assad to step down and cede power to his vice-president as part of a transitional plan leading to elections and a democratic government. The Russians appear to have said “no” to that idea, while negotiations among Security Council members continue to see if a consensus among the Permanent members and a majority of the Council can be reached in order to approve a new resolution.

The following articles address the underlying strategic, political and commercial interests Russia appears to be defending through its refusal to date to allow the Security Council to take effective action. It has a naval base on the Mediterranean at Tartus, arms sales to Syria, and other commerical interests, which apparently it believes it is defending through its obstinance in the Security Council.

Yet it may be making a strategic miscalculation of monumental proportions, striving to maintain its naval base following a kind of 19th century geopolitical calculus, when the Arab Spring has arrived, is spreading, and Russia now risks poisoning its relations with the governments and peoples of the Middle East, for at least a generation, by firmly defending a regime engaged in the unquestioned and widespread commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Russia always dreamed of having a warm-water port, but even its bases in the Crimea are controlled by NATO members Greece and Turkey at the entrance to the Bosphorus, just as the entrance to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic is controlled by Spain and Portugal, both NATO allies, and Morocco, the sponsor of the Arab league draft reolution in the Security Council. Given the revolution in Egypt, the chances of establishing a cozy relationship with the power which controls the Suez Canal appear slim.

19th century dreams of a warm-water port and Cold War strategies to have a naval base to contest NATO’s control of the Mediterranean are illusions based on Cold War and pre- Cold War thinking. Like the French who built the Maginot Line after World War I to protect themselves from the Germans, the Russians are likely to pay a heavy price for following a strategy based on the past instead of the future.

The great irony is that by continuing to support Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime, as the country plummets into civil war, the Russians are doing everything they can to alienate the very opposition forces in Syria which are likely to prevail–in the not-too-distant future. When these succeed in seizing power, they will not look kindly on the idea of maintaining Russia’s naval base in Syria, and will have no need for Russian arms.

For detailed examinations of Russia’s strategic and other interests in Syria, see:

S. Richter, “Russlands zweifelhafte Syrien-Strategie: Moskau blockiert eine UN-Resolution gegen das Assad-Regime. Es will seine letzte Bastion im Mittelmeer nicht einfach aufgeben,” Die Zeit, den 1. Februar, 2012

Daniel Treisman, “Why Russia protects Syria’s Assad,” CNN, February 2, 2012

Armin Arefi, “Syrie : pourquoi la Russie bloque l’ONU,”
Le Point, le 31 janvier, 2012

Pierre Avril, “Pourquoi Moscou protège son allié Assad,” Le Figaro, le 29 janvier, 2012

The World has changed. The Cold War is over. Russia is not going to fight NATO in the Mediterranean.

Blocking concerted action by the Security Council now may well lead in the future to the foreign military intervention which Russia fears, as Syria spins out of control.

Russia needs to do a basic “rethink” on where its own best interests lie.

The Trenchant Observer