Analyzing Russia's Support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad

PHOTO: Syrian President Bashar Assad
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has been Bashar al-Assad's vital political ally since the start of the Syrian conflict three years ago. But as peace talks between the government and opposition falter in Geneva, is Moscow growing frustrated with the Syrian president?

We asked Fyodor Lukyanov, Moscow-based editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and a member of the Russian Council for International Affairs, and Mark N. Katz, a professor at George Mason University specializing in Russian foreign policy and the international relations of the Middle East, to weigh in on the state of the relationship between Russia and Syria.

Syria Deeply: What is the state of the relationship between Moscow and Damascus? How is Russia feeling towards Assad at this point?

Fyodor Lukyanov: I don't think Russia is much frustrated with Assad, because Russia knew very well [from the start] what kind of person he is. There were no illusions from the beginning that this process would be easy. When the Russian side repeatedly told the American side their position, they [said that they] cannot force Assad to do something. We can only work with him carefully in order to push towards something, but we cannot just say "do this."

It seems that the level of stubbornness on [the part of both the Syrian government and the opposition] is bigger than Russian side could imagine. Of course, Russia will publicly defend Assad. I am sure the public position won't change and Russia will still play role of patron of the regime. But behind closed doors I think Russia will try to explain to Assad that situation is still very serious and that he needs to be more flexible in order to at least show some sings of progress.

Mark N. Katz: My sense is that they are frustrated with Assad, but that they think that they now have the upper hand, ever since last spring when the battle more or less turned in Assad's favor and things started going their way with Obama's acceptance of the chemical weapons proposal. Basically that was was a passive acceptance of the Assad regime.

What's also happened is we've seen the change of government in Egypt — the military there is much less sympathetic to the Syrian opposition [than the previous government] and Turkey launched a military attack on Jihadist rebel groups in Syria. So from Moscow's point of view, the West and other Arabs are now more accepting of Moscow's logic, which is that as bad as Assad is, he's better than [the opposition or] what's going to come next. The main exceptions to that are, of course, the Saudis and the Qataris.

Moscow's preferred solution is what the Algerian military accomplished in the 1990s, which is to brutally suppress the opposition, the same as the Russians themselves did in Chechnya. But that doesn't seem to be the long term outcome in Syria — Assad may remain in office, but he cant seem to eliminate his opponents, so this could just drag on indefinitely.

The Obama administration seems to be just walking away — they're not stopping the Russians from supporting Assad. If the Iranian-American rapprochement pushes through, Russia has to worry about whether Iran will make a deal with America [as regards Iran's support of Assad]. It may not seem like it's in the cards, but the Russians worry about these things.

SD: What's in this for Russia? What are they actually getting out of the relationship with the Syrian government?

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