Middle East

Syria unrest: Russia pulled two ways

A small rally in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Rome, Italy on 22 November 2011
Image caption Russia has an old ally in Syria, but the political pressure is building to distance itself

Syria has provided Russia with a close military ally in the heart of the Arab world since Soviet times.

And up until recently, it has suited Moscow's world view to stay friends with President Bashar al-Assad. It fits Russia's profile of itself as an independent Eurasian world power with its own priorities.

The spat between Russia and Nato over Georgia in 2008 accentuated the trend, prompting Vladimir Putin to announce he was reactivating closer links with old Soviet friends (Nicaragua and Venezuela in Central and Latin America, and Syria and Algeria in the Arab world).

At the United Nations Security Council, Russia has repeatedly argued that its opposition to UN sanctions against Syria is consistent with a broader refusal to back outside interference in sovereign states, and an insistence that diplomacy is always preferable to coercion.

That position has hardened in the last decade or so, following the West's interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya.

Indeed, Nato's action in Libya is regularly cited by Russia as the main reason it blocked the UN resolution on Syria in October - precisely because, Moscow said, it feared the start of a slippery slope towards military action.

Staying loyal to President Assad also reflects another Russian instinct: that stability is usually preferable to turbulence. All the various-coloured revolutions in former Soviet republics which preceded the Arab Spring prompted wariness or downright hostility from Mr Putin's government.

And Russia is highly sensitive to the geography of the crisis and Syria's relative proximity to its own unstable Muslim areas: if a full-blown civil war in Syria were to destabilise the entire region, Moscow's nightmare would be to see trouble spilling over into the North Caucasus on Russia's side of the border.

But as often with Russian foreign policy, one has to distinguish between posture and practicalities.

Russia may want to proclaim its independence from the West, but it does not want to look isolated either.

Remember what happened with Libya. Once it became clear that Col Muammar Gaddafi's days in power were numbered and other non-Western actors like Turkey and major Arab countries were losing patience, Russia too echoed the call that he should go.

So far Moscow has not done that with President Assad, though it has warned that the Syrian regime will not survive if it cannot reform itself.

But in recent days the political pressure to do something at the United Nations has been mounting.

Stung by accusations

A new UN report on human rights abuses in Syria asserted that the civilian death toll had risen to more than 5,000.

The UN Human Rights Commissioner called for the Assad regime to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

And Russia, seemingly, was stung by accusations that its intransigence was blocking UN action.

Image caption For Russia, a UN resolution could be the top of a slippery slope to military action - like in Libya

It too wants to be seen to "uphold human rights" in Syria and criticise a "disproportionate use of force by the Syrian authorities", as the new Russian UN text puts it - even if the same draft is also careful to insist on equivalence, and claim that "extremists" among the Syrian opposition are also responsible for the bloodshed.

Besides this, the lessons of "regime fall" in Iraq and Libya must also be concentrating minds in Moscow about how best to protect its military and financial interests in Syria.

Russia is a major arms supplier. It has energy projects to protect in Syria and naval interests too: it would like to see the Syrian port of Tartus once again serve as a base for Russian ships as it did in Soviet times.

All good reasons to support the status quo, but only of course while President Assad remains a viable option.

Yet at a certain point, Moscow must know that it might have to abandon its long-time ally.

Once it makes the assessment that Mr Assad and his Alawite officers, some of them trained in Russian military academies, are likely to lose power, then Moscow needs to find a way to shift allegiances.

Hence the updated draft at the UN.

Hence - having ruled out sanctions altogether - the hint of a shift in the Russian foreign minister's recent comments that "if sanctions could help stop violence and maintain stability... we would be the most decisive supporters".

And hence, having criticised the Arab League a few weeks ago for suspending Syria's membership, Russia's current invocation of the Arab League as part of a possible solution, saying its efforts to encourage dialogue and deploy a monitoring mission in Syria should be supported.

Where this will lead Russian policy on Syria? Who knows - especially if the Arab League backs not intervention but the establishment of safe havens for fleeing opposition activists.

One thing is clear: principle is all very well, but Russia's priority may well be its interests, and how to secure whatever it can salvage for the longer term.

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