Why Russia is standing by Syria's Assad

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin (2nd L) looks at Mi-24 ground-attack helicopters as he visits a military airbase in the city of Korenovsk June 14, 2012
Image caption,
Russia is not motivated to support Bashar al-Assad by arms sales alone

As the United Nations warns that Syria has descended into civil war, Russia continues to back President Bashar al-Assad in the face of growing international condemnation.

Konstantin von Eggert, political commentator for Kommersant FM radio in Moscow, looks at why the Kremlin is steadfastly supporting the beleaguered Syrian government.

Foreign policy analysts usually tend to explain Moscow's inflexible stance on Syria by evoking arms sales to Damascus (Bashar al-Assad's regime is said to have placed orders for Russian hardware to the tune of $3.5bn) and the Russian naval station in the Syrian port of Tartous.

But this alone does not account for Russia's seeming indifference to the adverse effect that its international advocacy of the Assad government has on its relations with the United States, the European Union and the majority of the Arab states.

The explanation has a lot to do with Russia's domestic policies and the obsessions of the Russian political class.

By standing up for Damascus, the Kremlin is telling the world that neither the UN, nor any other body or group of countries has the right to decide who should or should not govern a sovereign state.

If one looks at the Syrian crisis from this angle, many of Moscow's previously inexplicable actions take on a new, clearer meaning.

Sovereignty is king

Ever since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, but especially after the 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, the Russian leadership has been obsessed with the idea of America and the EU engineering the overthrow of governments that, for whatever reason, they find unsuitable.

President Vladimir Putin and his team seem to be convinced that something like that could happen to Russia.

Russia's political class never accepted concepts like "responsibility to protect", which aim to limit the ability of authoritarian governments to repress their own people.

Sovereignty, to the Russian leadership, means an unlimited licence for governments to do as they please within their national borders.

Image caption,
Anti-Assad protesters have called on Russia to end its support for the Damascus government

Ever since the Nato operation against former Yugoslavia in 1999, Moscow has deeply mistrusted Western humanitarian rhetoric and sees it as nothing but a camouflage for a policy of regime change.

The 2011 Libyan crisis revived these fears. Many Russian leaders, and Mr Putin himself, see then President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to abstain during a vote on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised a "no-fly zone" over Libya, as a disaster.

In Mr Putin's view, it opened the way for external intervention on behalf of one of the sides, in what was essentially a civil war, and the eventual removal of Col Muammar Gaddafi from power.

It seems that Russia's "new old" president decided not to let this happen again. Moscow's hard-line attitude thus becomes not just a way of defending particular interests, but rather a way of making a very important political point.

Does Moscow realise that another "coalition of the willing" could form to remove Mr Assad from power by military means - Libyan style?

I think it does. But, as I heard one of Russia's most senior diplomats say recently: "We cannot prevent them [read - Western allies and rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf] from trying. But we will never give them a UN resolution cover."

The presumed, unsaid subtext is: Russia will also make this task as difficult as possible.

Saving face

Moscow claims to have a special influence on the regime in Damascus, but it seems that instead of advising Bashar Assad to change his ways, Russian emissaries were telling him until recently - help us to help you. Use some creative window dressing and we'll be able to defend you better.

This approach starts to wear thin as UN special envoy Kofi Annan's mission fails and the Syrian regime's legitimacy starts to haemorrhage with growing speed.

The Kremlin entertains the possibility of Mr Assad's exit from the game but it still considers this possibility remote.

It thinks that with help from Russia, Iran and China, the Syrian leader has a chance of prevailing over his opponents.

However, should the Assad clan be forced to leave, Russia will hope for and work very hard on creating a negotiations framework that would involve external players and possibly give Moscow some scope to bargain over its commercial and military interests in Syria.

But the main goal for Moscow will continue to be a face-saving solution for Mr Assad, which at least outwardly will not look like "regime change" in its classic form.

Off the record, Russian officials like to point to the Yemen roundtable talks which eased veteran Ali Abdullah Saleh from the presidential chair, granted him immunity and installed his own vice-president as the head of state.

But with the Syrian drama's tragic turn, such a scenario looks increasingly unlikely. Which may well leave Moscow stuck with the Assad government till the bitter end.