Middle East

A Collapsing Syria: The Russian Foreign Policy Problem

Russian Foreign Policy

Bashar al-Assad is done.  It is only a matter of time before his regime collapses, shrivels into the Alawite heartland in the mountains near the Mediterranean, or meets a dismal fate at the hands of domestic opposition fighters or foreign jihadis.  Given the constant stream of defections, in-flow of foreign money, and the disturbing trend of foreign fighters (some now designated as terrorists by the United States), Assad’s decades-old regime cannot hope to win.  Eventually, foreign recognition of the opposition will accelerate as governments fall in line with what they perceive as the winning side as Syria becomes a thorn for Russian foreign policy.

A Brief History of Russian Foreign Policy in Syria

Russia has featured prominently in this nearly two year old conflict.  It, even more so that China, is in a unique position with Syria.  Syrian-Russian ties go back to the early days of the Cold War.  In 1971, the Soviet were granted a naval base in the city of Tartous.  More recently, Syria has been a major arms client of Russia and been granted a nearly $10 billion debt write-down. Additionally, Russia has expanded its naval base with the hope of eventually docking nuclear armed vessels there.  On top of defence, a multi-billion dollar trade and foreign investment relationship exists with Syria.

To date, Russia has not drastically changed its stance on Syria from the start of the conflict.  This stance is based on a number of factors including economics and geostrategy; some have even portrayed similarities to the regimes of United Russia and the Syrian Ba’ath Party branding their style of rule as “soft authoritarianism”.  Parallels can certainly be drawn in the handling of this crisis in Syria and that in Chechnya over a decade ago.  As well, similar justifications based on stability were used to move slowly on reform.  However, since the start of the conflict, Assad has moved from a soft brand of authoritarianism to one with a much harder edge.

The impending Russian foreign policy problems with Syria comes from being viewed as too close to the old regime. Even China has seemingly kept quiet of late, as it appears to be quietly hedging for future eventualities. If and when Assad falls (or effectively falls), chances are that opposition forces in Syria will continue to associate Russia with the Assad regime.  Even more, there have been anti-Russian demonstrations across the region as a result of their perceived closeness to old regimes.  Weapons deliveries, cheering crowds greeting the Russian Foreign Minister and the visit of Russia’s only aircraft carrier have not helped its image with the opposition or the backers of the opposition, namely Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.

Russian Foreign Policy: Syria's Defense Minister General Dawood Rajiha visits the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov in Tartous.

Syria’s Defense Minister General Dawood Rajiha visits the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov in Tartous.

A Geostrategic Loss

The prospect exists that Russia could be shut out from the Mediterranean geopolitically once Assad goes.  It is unlikely, even if they switched sides immediately, that any new regime in Syria would allow the Kremlin to maintain its military base.  Other options for housing a support base, let alone a permanent base in the Mediterranean region are very limited.  It is highly unlikely that even with Russian loans to Cyprus, the Cypriot government would allow the Russian navy space on an island with two massive British bases on it already.  Barring buying a Greek island, or convincing Sicily to separate from Italy, Russia appears to be on the verge of losing its base in Tartous and having its sphere of military operations curtailed dramatically, effectively rolled back to the former Soviet Space.  Such a result can only be viewed as step a backwards for Russian foreign policy, but probably in line with its decline as a naval power since 1991.  Rumoured new bases in Cuba, Vietnam or the Seychelles are not only repeatedly denied but also far from Russia’s interests much closer to home in the Mediterranean area.

Possible Options

The Russian foreign policy options, having come this far down the line with Assad, are becoming very limited.  Perhaps the best, although unrealistic, outcome would be for Russia to play a central role in an exile and amnesty agreement with senior regime figures and the Assad family.  The Kremlin could attempt to spin such a deal as a form of practical problem solving and peacemaking.  It could also try to extract critical concessions to make up for lost financial opportunities from regional players currently backing the opposition, as well as at the very most unenforceable promises from opposition figures regarding trade and contracts.

The media has rumored that such a plan may have been discussed between Putin and Erdogan in early December, as the two agreed to expand trade relations (tourism, construction, and energy) and not to focus too much on the current Syrian Civil War.  It is unlikely, however, that this would do much to salvage their reputation in a post-Assad Syria or save the Tartous military base.  The obvious risk with such a plan is that the Russians are seen as harbouring a former dictator and further resentment is built up.  Lastly, it is questionable how much influence the Russians even have with the regime especially in this start of its final act.

Tartous Military Base

Tartous Military Base

Other options are for Russia to hold the status quo and then eventually recognize the new regime when Assad is either killed, flees into exile into a third country or retreats into the mountains.  This option would not do anything to help the Kremlin salvage relations with Syria and would have an obvious negative result with opposition backers.  Finally, the last option of dramatically backing the opposition in a complete reversal is completely unrealistic given the Kremlin’s general position on opposition movements and the Arab Spring.

A Bleak Outlook

The Russian foreign policy of backing Syria and having a warm, albeit rocky relationship with Iran in an attempt to support a counterbalance to US/GCC policy in the region looks to be on the verge of backfiring.  Cautious of a precedent set by interventions in Kosovo and particularly in Libya, where a No-Fly-Zone designed to protect civilians was used to eradicate the Gaddafi regime, has made the Kremlin particularly reluctant to back opposition movements and foreign intervention based on supposed human rights concerns.  Russian foreign policy options are ever-shrinking as it is perceived by the international community as the main state backer of the Assad regime.  Whether Russia’s concerns are based in geopolitics, economics, or a more traditional Westphalian notion of state sovereignty (a common understanding it has with China) does not change its image problem with Syria.  Russian foreign policy (like many nations) seems slow to embrace the fast pace of change exposed by the Arab Spring and the instantaneous communications of the 21st Century.   Traditional notions of state sovereignty may also be in flux as calls for R2P increase.  Such changes must be rationalized by foreign policy thinkers everywhere, a task not easy for those steeped in the Cold War.  Russian foreign policy with Syria and arguably that of the United States is a demonstration of such discomfort with how this new century is unfolding.