Despite Massacre, Russia Still Backing Assad in Syria

Even in the aftermath of the brutal killings of 108 people by pro-regime militias, Moscow is standing by its longtime ally.

Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images; Seth Wenig / AP Photo

For months, international pressure has mounted against Russia to give up its dogged support of Syria, as Bashar al-Assad, the country’s strongman and longtime Russian ally, has ramped up his brutal tactics against his scattered opposition. Earlier this week Sergei Lavrov, Moscow’s hardline foreign minister, appeared to be backing away from Assad after news broke that militias loyal to the regime massacred 108 civilians in Houla, including 48 children.

"We do not support the Syrian government," Lavrov said Monday as British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Moscow to persuade Russia to back tough international sanctions.

"What is important is ending the violence. We support the plan of [the United Nations–Arab League peace envoy] Kofi Annan."

Despite Lavrov’s harsh condemnation of the violence, which he blamed on “both sides,” sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations report that little has changed in Russia’s stance. Moscow “is very firm in opposing any kind of international intervention and there’s been no visible shift on that,” said one British official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“Britain and the international community have been saying to the Russians that betting on Assad staying on isn’t a realistic long-term strategy. The real alternatives are the Annan plan or all-out civil war. Some would say that we’re in that situation already.”

Russia has been a strong supporter of the Assad family ever since the president’s father, Hafez, took power in 1970. The Assads were major Soviet allies during the Cold War, and a small naval refueling station in Tartus near the Syrian Mediterranean port of Latakia remains Russia’s only overseas base. Vladimir Putin ordered a refit of the Soviet-era base in 2008 as part of Russia’s multibillion-dollar military buildup, and in March sent the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, to Tartus in a show of solidarity with the Syrian regime. Damascus is also one of Russia’s best arms customers, having purchased roughly $4 billion worth of MIG 29 fighter jets and P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles, among other military equipment, since 2006.

But Russia’s backing of Assad is about more than commerce and old alliances. For Moscow, a vital principle is at stake: to oppose the doctrine of international intervention in internal conflicts—whether in the Middle East or in Russia’s own backyard. Last year, Russia was persuaded to back a U.N. resolution authorizing a limited intervention in Libya. Soon however, to Moscow’s ire, that resolution was used to initiate a full-scale air campaign against Libya’s longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Which is perhaps why this time around, Russia, along with China, has blocked two U.N. resolutions authorizing sanctions against Assad.

“They are determined that Syria should not become another Libya,” the British official said.

Another bellwether of the Kremlin’s commitment to Assad is the coverage of the conflict by the Russian media. Russian television, which is mostly state controlled, has largely parroted the regime’s line that the insurgency is the work of al Qaeda terrorists. Ongoing violence and anarchy in Libya and Iraq is another recurring theme, emphasizing the Kremlin’s message that pro-democracy revolutions only bring chaos.

So as the U.S., France, and Britain ratchet up talk of a possible military option, Russia has become ever more vehement in its opposition. On Tuesday, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “the military option should be considered,” while France’s new president, Francois Hollande, said that he “would not rule out” using force against the Syrian regime. In response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said that Moscow "categorically opposes any external intervention in the Syrian conflict, as it would only aggravate the situation with unpredictable consequences for Syria and the entire region." And earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told leaders of the G8 that such an intervention could lead to a regional nuclear war.

While Russia continues to oppose intervention, its leaders are well aware that the Syrian regime’s continued use of violence has undermined Moscow’s position and embarrassed its leaders.

The Syrian leader “has definitely gotten the sense that he may lose Russia’s sympathy and he may step back a bit,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “Assad is driving himself and Russia into a corner.”

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Indeed, Moscow has been pressuring Assad to accept the terms of the Annan Plan, which calls on both sides to observe a ceasefire and begin negotiations.

One option that the U.S. is reportedly pursuing with Russia is to canvas Moscow’s support for a so-called Yemen solution, whereby Assad would voluntarily relinquish power in exchange for legal immunity for himself and his family and yield power to a transitional government.

“A Yemen-style transition is certainly one of the models we have been talking about,” with the Russians, the U.K. official said.

“There can be no satisfactory outcome as long as [Assad] is in power.”

Lavrov, however, continues to insist that the Annan Plan should be tweaked. Instead of calling for talks "between the Syrian government and the opposition," he said the plan should refer to Assad as the representative of the Syrian state. In other words, even though Russia may be more willing to criticize Assad, Moscow remains his chief protector and ally.