Why Is Russia Supporting Syria’s President Bashir Assad?

Owen Matthews reports on the mutually beneficial Syrian-Russian relationship.

Muzaffar Salman / AP Photos

When it comes to standing by old friends, Moscow has an unrivaled record. Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and soon-to-step-down Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—Russia staunchly defended them all, right up to and usually long past the moment that they were deposed by angry popular uprisings, Western military intervention, or both. Now Syrian President Bashir Assad must be hoping that he’s the exception in Moscow’s unerring knack for backing losers.

Moscow has been mobilizing its diplomatic and military resources to defend the Assad regime since 1970, when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev backed Hafez Assad’s bloodless coup—and in return received a Mediterranean base for the Soviet Navy in the Syrian port of Tartus. That base was all but forgotten until 2008, when then-Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered a major refurbishment of the base. In the meantime Damascus, buoyed by high oil prices, had been placing orders for MiG 29 fighter jets, Yak-130 jet trainers, Pantsir and Buk air-defense systems, P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles, and small arms to the tune of $4 billion since 2006. Not that all the hardware has been of much help—Syria was unable to defend itself against a September 2007 Israeli airstrike which destroyed an alleged nuclear research facility, and the small arms haven’t been able to stem one of the bloodiest popular uprisings of this year’s Arab Spring.

True to form, though, Russia has offered a degree of diplomatic protection to its old friends, wielding its veto in the United Nations Security Council against any attempt to impose sanctions. Last month Russia and China vetoed a French-proposed measure to sanction Syria in the wake of a U.N. report documenting 3,500 deaths over six months of unrest. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice walked out of the U.N. meeting, saying that she was “outraged,” and that opposition to the resolution was a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”

Russia has pushed on unperturbed, even as Syria’s once-close allies in the Arab League and Turkey have both declared sanctions on the Assad regime. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, went ahead with an official visit to Damascus last month. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Syrian opposition figures and told them that “patience, insistence, and equal pressure applied to all participants in the process” was the only real chance to bring an end to the conflict. Meanwhile Russia will send another message of support to its friends in Damascus in the form of the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s largest (and indeed only) functional aircraft carrier. The carrier, bearing jets and anti-ship helicopters and accompanied by Moscow’s latest anti-missile destroyer, will dock in Tartus by the end of the year for resupply. And though a Russian Navy spokesman insists that the “visit of Russian ships to Tartus should not be seen as a gesture towards what is going on in Syria,” it’s hard to see the show of force as anything other than a gesture of support and solidarity with Moscow’s old client, the Assad regime.

But while arms deals and a strategic naval base are part of the reason for Russia’s stubborn support of Assad, there are deeper reasons. For a decade or so—ever since a disruptive foray into international peacekeeping in Kosovo in 1999—Moscow has been fundamentally opposed to the idea of international action and regime change imposed from outside of a country. The reason is based on a deep paranoia that the same medicine could be applied to the countries of the former Soviet Union—or indeed Russia itself. If Assad can be ousted by an indignant international community, why not Belarusian dictator (and Moscow ally) Alexander Lukashenka?

Using internal strife as an excuse for imperial intervention is as old as empires themselves—and one often used by Moscow. Notable recent examples include the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 after a destabilizing coup organized by the KGB, or ongoing Russian occupations of the breakaway Moldovan republic of Transdniestr, or the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2005 the United Nations adopted a crucial “responsibility to protect” clause—known to diplomats as ‘R2P’—which obliges the Security Council to “take collective action” to protect populations against “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” But if, like Russia, your worldview is that humanitarian intervention is just a cover for strategic greed, opposing sanctions on Syria proposed by the West follows naturally. “Given the current instability in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now also in Libya, embarking on new interventions would mean pushing individual regions and the entire system of international relations towards chaos,” Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told students in Moldova this week.

Many Arabs, however—especially those who overthrew dictators and now run Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and soon Yemen—seem to be unimpressed by Russia’s cynicism. “We are very aware that our Russian brothers, due to their long suffering in the hands of dictators for 70 years, now regard the despots amongst our rulers as the pinnacle of democracy,” Ali Ahmed Al-Baghli of the Kuwait-based Arab Times wrote last month. “We say once again: We can send them to you if you love them.”