Top Russian leaders are now acknowledging the possibility that the Assad regime might fall, and Moscow has even begun to arrange for the emergency departure of some Russian citizens from Syria. Moscow, though, shows no sign of joining Western and Arab governments in calling for Assad to step down.
Why is Moscow acting to protect the Assad regime even when it appears to be weakening, and when backing it is hurting Moscow’s image in the Middle East?
Important Russian interest groups have stakes in Syria: the Russian Navy has facilities at the Syrian port of Tartus, the Russian arms export industry sells arms to Damascus, and the petroleum industry has investments in Syria.
But even without these, there are several important motivations for the Kremlin to continue backing the Assad regime—or at least to try to block Western support for his overthrow.
First and foremost, Moscow does not want to lose its one remaining ally in the Arab World. Without its position in Syria, Moscow would lose even the limited ability it still has to exert influence in the region.
Further, Moscow feels genuinely betrayed by what happened in Libya and does not want to see anything like this happen again. In March 2011, Russia (and China) acquiesced to the passage of a UN Security Council Resolution imposing a no-fly zone in Libya as a means of preventing the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering its opponents. Moscow, though, has complained bitterly that the West and its allies went well beyond the terms of his resolution and actively supported the opposition’s effort to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. Since then, Moscow has been adamant about not allowing the passage of any Security Council resolution—including one imposing just economic sanctions—against the Assad regime for fear that the West and its allies will exceed its terms as well.
In addition, Moscow genuinely believes that the West misunderstand what is happening in Syria. However bad the Assad regime is, what follows it (in Moscow’s view) will be far worse—for the West as well as for Russia.
Also: Saudi support for the Syrian opposition has revived Russian fears about the Kingdom’s motives. Moscow tends to view Saudi Arabia in the same negative way that Washington views Iran. Russian commentators doubt that the Saudis are backing the Syrian opposition because they want to promote democratization in Syria. They fear that Riyadh wants to bring about the rise of a Sunni Islamist regime there instead. Moreover, Moscow fears that if Islamist forces replace Assad, this will increase the prospects for the rise of similar forces in the Russian North Caucasus.
Even if the Assad regime is going to fall, Putin–for domestic political reasons–prefers to be seen supporting it to the bitter end in defiance of the West than to be seen as bowing to the West and helping it bring about Assad’s downfall.
Further—and somewhat contradictorily—Moscow does not see any serious cost to opposing the U.S. in particular on Syria since it doesn’t see Washington as actually seeking the downfall of Assad. Moscow—which has had long experience in observing American foreign policy—knows that when the U.S. really wants to intervene somewhere, it does not wait for Security Council approval. For the U.S. to now cite the unwillingness of Russia and China to support just economic sanctions on Damascus as a reason for not being able to do more shows Moscow that Washington does not want to do more. Indeed, Moscow is happy that Washington is doing this because its actions make Russia look more important and influential.
Finally, there is the Israeli factor. Since Putin first came to power, Russian-Israeli relations have grown remarkably close. Moscow sees Israel as being as wary of change in Syria as Russia is. While Moscow may not have much influence over American foreign policy, it knows that Israel does. Fear of harming Israel may ultimately deter America from doing more to undermine Assad.
Moscow, then, ultimately sees the West and Russia as having similar interests in preserving the status quo in Syria. Sadly, it has been the pusillanimous Western—and especially American—reaction to the popular uprising against the Assad regime that has contributed to this Russian misperception.