Washington’s impatience with Moscow’s refusal to follow its lead over Syria demonstrates its failure to understand real Russian concerns.


President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama at the G20 summit. Photo: Reuters

Washington is certainly unhappy with Moscow, especially over its refusal to follow its lead over Syria. As a result, old clichés about authoritarians sticking together are being recycled, and suggestions being made that Russian policy is driven by the value of Damascus’s arms contracts or a strategic need to maintain naval facilities at Tartus on the Syrian coastline.

These are all, frankly, questionable assertions.

Until relatively recently, Bashar al-Assad had been wooing the West. Back in 2011— when the present conflict was still in its early stages — it was then-president Dmitry Medvedev who warned him that he needed “urgently to launch reforms [and] make peace with the opposition.”

Likewise, Syria is only Russia’s thirteenth largest arms customer, with sales accounting for just under a billion dollars a year, out of total sales of $15.7 billion last year: considerable, yes, but not enough to drive policy. As for Tartus, it is little more than a refueling point with a dozen Russian personnel.

Russian policy is driven not by political affinity, economic gain or geopolitical ambition, but a combination of anger and fear, and one that Washington has done nothing to address or assuage. Indeed, to a considerable extent, U.S. policy has created the very obduracy with which the Russians are now resisting the American lead.

In a joint press conference with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry admitted the presence of “an Iraq hangover” leading to “a huge doubt in people’s mind… because we all got burned by that and we’re still paying the price.”

Perhaps more important, though, is the “Libya hangover.” In 2011, Moscow agreed to support what was meant to be a limited NATO operation to protect civilians. Instead, what followed increasingly became an air campaign directly to support the rebels and topple the Gaddafi regime.

To Moscow, U.S. claims that it simply seeks to punish Assad’s regime for using chemical weapons — a claim Moscow formally questions, but, I believe, secretly acknowledges — are disingenuous. White House denials that it is really seeking regime change sit uncomfortably with the often-repeated line that “Assad must go.” It is hardly surprising that Russia assumes that if it gives an inch on Syria, U.S. cruise missiles will take a mile.

Why should the Russians ultimately care all that much if Assad’s thoroughly unpleasant regime falls or not? They fear the likely aftermath if power falls to a resistance movement made up of a combustible mix of democrats, patriots, opportunists, bandits and jihadists, connected with both Iran and Al-Qaeda.

It would empower possibly Turkey and certainly Iran, both countries with which Russia is competing for influence along its southern flank. The Turks have been supporting the mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) and, presumably, expect a key role if it takes Damascus. Far more likely is a protracted period of anarchy, with struggles for power splitting the FSA and Tehran doing everything it can to support its proxies and allies there (and probably doing so through northern Iraq, further contributing to its slide back into violence).

This would further destabilize the region and even could affect Russia directly. Chechens — from the North Caucasus, Syria’s own Chechen community and the wider diaspora alike — are fighting on the rebel side, especially in jihadist units such as the Al-Nusra Front. At present, the conflict seems to be drawing some militants away from the North Caucasus; according to Federal Security Service director Alexander Bortnikov earlier this year, some 200 Russian citizens have joined the rebels.

Once the war ends, though, the fear inevitably is that they may make their way back to the North Caucasus — and, as in the 1990s, they may bring with them allies and money to radicalize and reinvigorate the conflict there. TV footage of graffiti on Syrian walls reading, “We started in Syria, we will finish in Russia” suggests that this is not just Muscovite paranoia.

In this context, Washington has done nothing meaningfully to address Russian concerns. It has expressed a hope that a post-Assad Syria will be stable, secular and democratic without giving any signs of having a credible strategy to accomplish this — and its track record in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya hardly bodes well. It has affirmed that it has no desire to remove Syria from Russia’s orbit, but there is no doubt but that a post-Assad Syria would be, at best, a client state of Turkey or the U.S., at worst, of Iran.

It’s always easier to assume one’s critics are fools and scoundrels rather than taking their views on board. So long as Washington continues to regard Moscow as acting out “like the bored kid in the back of the classroom” - to use President Obama’s phrase about Russian President Putin - it can hardly complain if Russia continues to question its inexorable slide towards intervention in Syria.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.