The West is pushing for a tough UN Security Council resolution to tighten the screws on Damascus. The US, Britain, France and their Gulf ally Qatar have made it clear their ultimate aim is Bashar Assad’s resignation and a process of national reconciliation to end the violence and bring the Syrian opposition into power through fair elections. But Russia has steadfastly refused to give ground to a Security Council resolution that could hasten such a development.
This has infuriated Western diplomats with even Hillary Clinton attacking the Russian delegation by asking them “Whose side are you on,” those of the pro-democracy protesters or “Are you on the side of a brutal dictatorial regime?” But why is Moscow defending Assad with every Russian diplomat it has at the UN?
Less passion however has gone into understanding Russian motives and the political psychology underpinning their “nyet” in the Security Council. Firstly, Western leaders have so far failed to grasp that the Arab spring is not an emotive, moral issue for the Moscow establishment. While Western officials have read into the uprisings as “the birth of democracy,” or more literally “the Arab 1989,” the Russian leadership sees this “1989” from a Russian perspective – as the outbreak of regional chaos. Nor does Russia have much enthusiasm for the protesters themselves. Like Israel, the Russian establishment is pessimistic. Putin has warned of the “clash of civilizations” and Medvedev has warned of “extremists” coming to power as a result of the Arab revolutions. The “Arab scenario” is widely discussed now in Moscow in reference to their own domestic protest movement and whether it could eventually topple Putin – not the association likely to make him support another toppling in Damascus. Nor does it help that some members of the protest movement have been tweeting “Russia is not an enemy of the Syrian people.” Putin does not want to give into the West on an issue he thinks will only worsen Middle Eastern security and look weak when facing his own protest movement he is countering with fierce anti-Western propaganda.
However, the Russian political elite are not just being cynical. Their view is informed by Russian history. Since 1979 when Soviet tanks entered Afghanistan, Moscow had been at war pretty much non-stop against Islamic militants. Generations of the Russian military and secret services have grown up either fighting the Afghan Mujahedeen or Chechen militants. During the Putin-era, even sections of the Russian police have also been drafted to suppress the insurgency in the North Caucasus. With a conscript army, battling Islamic insurgents in the North Caucasus has been a bitter coming of age experience for the Yeltsin and Putin generation. For Russian politicians, Islamic terrorism has dominated national security briefs throughout their careers – from Putin’s own war that solidified his power in Chechnya – to the sad fact that Moscow has received more terrorist attacks in the past few years than Tel Aviv. The amount of Islamist-inspired attacks on Russian civilians (even if you exclude the suspicious 1999 apartment bombings) is close to Israel’s high-risk status for domestic attacks. This experience has led to an attitude where Russians think like Israelis about the prospects of democracy in the Middle East, aided by the fact that a quarter of Israelis have Soviet origins, making the country in some sense firmly part of the post-Soviet space. On Syria, Russia feels it is an “expert” on Islamic radicalism and thinks regime-change will produce an anti-Russian, Islamist government in Damascus. For now the Syrian uprising is not an Islamic radical uprising – the irony of this Russian misconception is that the longer the conflict goes on the more likely it is of becoming what Moscow fears.
Russia also feels it has a point on the issue of global governance. Moscow claims that it was repeatedly “deceived” on Western long-term intentions and that the West is a fundamentally “unpredictable partner.” They point to the fact that interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again and then Libya were framed as “exceptional” one-off events. Russia says that their worries of interventions in any of these countries could open up the prospect elsewhere, such as in the post-Soviet space, were dismissed. Intervention in Libya or Syria was considered “unthinkable” until recently. Russian diplomats also point to the fact they were “lied to” over the UN Security Council Resolution authorizing a no-fly zone in Eastern Libya. They say they gave NATO an inch – in the form of a No Fly Zone – and it took a mile – by deposing and, to quote Putin, “killing Gadaffi”.
Not only does Russia consider the West naïve about Syrian democracy, deceptive and unpredictable about international interventions, it also considers the West hypocritical. Quite simply because Syria is Russia’s Bahrain. In the same way the US strategic foothold and naval base in the Persian Gulf was more valuable than supporting a democratic transition, Russia cannot afford to let go of its Syrian position. Damascus has been in Russian eyes “loyal” to Moscow and its base on the Mediterranean is the only one outside the ex-USSR. Furthermore Moscow has major arms contracts and a general “eyes and ears” relationship with Assad that cannot be thrown away to support a Syrian opposition.
Leading from behind with Russia
Russia is opposing a Syrian resolution because it does not want to cave into to the West when it has interests, look weak in front of the protest movement and above all just thinks it will only lead to no-good in the Levant. But the West and its allies can mollify Moscow by giving it something to gain through supporting steps to tighten the screws on Assad.
In the 1990s the Russian establishment acquiesced to intervention in Bosnia as Russia was allowed a seat at the table, “the table of victors” in their eyes. What angered Moscow most about the Libyan intervention is that it didn't even get a stool. The West should therefore try and “lead from behind” and offer a top seat to Moscow if it is serious in moving to end the Syrian uprising without Assad. First, the West should accept a watered down UN resolution now and, in exchange, call Russia’s bluff by explicitly supporting its desire to host a major peace conference in Moscow between Damascus and the Syrian opposition. Catherine Ashton and Hillary Clinton should attend. The West should throw its diplomatic weight into supporting this initiative and bending it to its advantage. As Russia is often more concerned with being seen and treated like a great power than many precise policy agendas – the West could try and “lead from behind,” and let Moscow be the front man for the international community.
If the conference fails, a new Security Council resolution should be pushed for. The West should make it clear that in bringing Russia onside it is not asking Russia to give up precious assets, but offering Moscow another “seat at the table of victors” with its arms contracts and base guaranteed. Russians are dealmakers and can be swayed by a political chess-move that let them keep their assets, but above all Putin likes to cut “la bella figura” internationally. Tapping into that and allowing Putin to play the role of peacemaker and superpower leader – may be the same thing as being able to manipulate it.
Ben Judah is a Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Previously he was a reporter based in Moscow with Reuters.
This Week in the East is a weekly commentary by research fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) for New Eastern Europe.
Photo courtesy of the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office – www.kremlin.ru