Syria: a Russian dilemma – sovereignty, ego and regional influence

All along since the beginning of the protests in Deraa, March 2010 Russia has stood by Syria. At first this was not so difficult. President Assad promised reforms and amnesty through his spokesperson Bouthaina Shaaban, spoke to the Syrian parliament, formed a new cabinet and lectured them on TV, revoked the emergency laws which, among other, did close the infamous State Security Court and enacted a law regulating demonstrations. Internationally the focus was divided between a couple of other states – Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and, especially, Libya. The EU for all their sanctions leveled at the Syria regime initially acted hesitantly as actually not to harm the Syrian regime in any major fashion. USA seemed more distant from the Middle East then ever with a weakened President and gridlocked Congress. Turkey for its part did a lot of harsh talking (and here), courtesy of the hotheaded PM Erdogan, but had little action to show for it. In the United Nations Security Council BRICS countries Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa banded together to block any initiative for a resolution getting the necessary support for even a vote. The Arab League was nothing. To be Russia was easy.

Not so anymore. Assad’s ‘reforms’ turned out to be nothing but window dressing; not that it bothers Russia per se as a state that has turned window dressing in to an art form – but it just does not look good when you stir all the ingredients together. Bashar al-Assad’s rambling, paranoid speech – remember, among other, the claim of 100 000 sms being sent from a neighboring state (i.e. Israel) that made people go out and protest – to a the rubber stamping excuse for a parliament filled with row upon row of Tintin-esque looking villains is now lauded by some as his best performance to date. Although there are others that claim this speech was the beginning of the end, snuffing out the hope that Bashar al-Assad was a closet reformer at heart and also exposed him to an unsuspecting Syrian public as an out-of-touch goof, albeit with far to much military power, fanatical followers and a brother a few steps shy of Hannibal Lecter.

Internationally almost the only topic today continuously being reported on from the Middle East is the Syrian uprising. EU has slowly gotten their act together. With oil and bank sanctions (here, here) they are, bit by bit, strip-mining the Syrian economy and the crony business people (and here) that has for so long propped up this regime. Each name EU adds to the sanction list (here, here, here, here, here, and here) is another individual that will likely be hauled to the ICC or any national court accepting universal jurisdiction when the dust settles. In USA, warming up for a presidential election the republicans are weaker than ever and President Obama seems eager for a fight – with Iran, Pakistan, Syria and even Egypt. And yes – even Turkey has moved from talk to action with sanctions, blocking of transports to and from Syria that have frustrated Iranian arms smuggling. In the United Nations Security Council the BRICS are no more as Brazil rotated out of the council after their six months and India and South Africa grudgingly accepting the proposition that doing nothing on Syria, as Russia would like, is not good for our image as a coming major international state actor. And finally there is the Arab League. Previously a ‘talk only’ club of states run by more or less absurd dictators. But after Tunisia, Egypt and, especially, Libya that Russia was surprised of the Arab Leagues gall is in itself an enigma. No, to be Russia is no longer a walk in the park.

Yet Russia stands by Syria and in the latest move watered down the UN security council resolution and finally, when they did not get it their way, vetoed it together with China to the howl of USA, EU and the Arab League. We have heard a lot of different explanations for this: arms sale, the Russian military ‘port’ in Tartous, fear of Muslim radicalization, the risk that Syria fragments and drags down the whole region in a war, friendship between Assad and Putin (?) and how France, UK and USA used the somewhat ambiguous language in UN security council resolution 1973/2011 to oust a dictator they did not like. But all this is wrong.

The answer to Russia’s action is threefold: (1) Sovereignty – the stymieing of western intervention by way of the UN in Russian sphere of influence, (2) superpower ego and personal ego, (3) regional influence and the MEPP

The piece de resistance is sovereignty.  Russia loathes what is perceives as western meddling in their sphere of influence. Syria as the one old remaining ally could here be seen as a part of the Russian sphere of influence, an extended near abroad and a foothold in the Middle East to use as a springboard for further extension of the sphere of influence. For Russia sovereignty is the power with which to rein in what it sees as western manipulation of the UN charter to oust leaders (i.e. dictators) that they do not like. Russia sees, and before it the Soviet Union saw, what went in inside a state that had no effect internationally as not belonging before the United Nations. The state was sovereign. Today one can see this in how Russia dealt with the Moroccan Security Council resolution  watered down and in the end vetoed. In the draft that I got hold of one can see the changes Russia demanded to accept to not veto. It has sovereignty written all over it.

Russia’s ruler Putin sees it very much as a superpower. But there is a problem – the rest of the world does not. For Putin this is a problem. The best way to get everyone’s attention is to use the power one has and stop the machinery, i.e. United Nations Security Council. If things are going to move on Syria Russia must be part of the deal, and preferably be in charge.

Russia is not what it used to be under Putin. Today he can no longer cruise to power without facing opposition. An opposition that seems eerie influenced by the protests in the Middle East, especially the ones in Egypt. So to support a UN Security Council resolution that for the first time calls for a leader of a sovereign nation to step down might strike back at Putin should he face a similar situation.

In the Middle East Syria is the only actor allowing Russia to sit at ‘the table’ and play a part in the MEPP befitting the status Russia is entitled to according to Putin. While France, UK and Turkey have widened their influence in the Middle East Russia has for many years lost ground. Syria is also the only remaining foothold Russia has. If the Assad regime would be toppled the door would close, likely for a long time for Russia.

But in the end as Bashar al-Assad’s promises of reform to Russian FM Lavrov evaporates, the massacres intensify and the pressure mounts with videos on Youtube, live streaming on Bambuser from cities under attack, with EU pulling out the big sanction gun on the 27th of February, with the Arab League pressing for a peacekeeping mission, endorsed by the EU, with the GCC on the warpath threatening to arm the FSA and with China now bowing out Russia will fold. The question how quickly, how it can do so without loosing face and how many Syrians that will have to pay with their lives.


About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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