March 5, 2012 | NOW Lebanon

Moscow’s Interests in Assad

March 5, 2012 | NOW Lebanon

Moscow’s Interests in Assad

With the Obama administration adamantly opposed to integrating a military component into its Syria policy, the debate on what to do next continues to revolve around possible diplomatic options. Invariably, this discussion ultimately leads back to Russia.

The stubborn notion persists that Russia can yet be brought around, somehow, to support US policy in Syria. The administration is apparently calculating that Moscow’s position might yet change following its March elections. The thinking is that once Vladimir Putin secures his election, the Russian position could become more amenable.

The problem with this thinking is that it continues to misread Russia’s interests and the pillars of its role in the region.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that Moscow does not have that many strategic relations in the region. “Syria is kind of it in the Middle East at this point for Russia,” one expert on Russia recently told the New York Times. That is, along with Iran, to be fully accurate. But in the context of the Levant, the statement is quite on the mark.

Since the US has mainly crowded it out of the region, Moscow has a very specific target audience to whom it presents itself as an ally worth having: the region’s rogues. Aside from leveraging weapons sales, the Russians’ pitch is that unsavory regimes will find in them a good and reliable friend.

“The alliance of rogues is what anchors Russia's strategic position in the region,” David Wurmser, formerly Middle East Advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, told me. “Otherwise, what role do they have in the region?” That’s Moscow's currency.

To this, add another critical factor. The foundation of the modern, post-Soviet Russian state, and its ruling clique, is the vast energy empire it controls. In particular, the Russians have a direct interest in ensuring Europe’s continued dependence on them for its supply of natural gas.

The discovery and development of significant gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean is a matter of great concern for the Russians, as it could provide Europe with an alternative source for its gas needs, outside of the Kremlin’s sway.

Obviously, then, Russia wants to muscle in on the Eastern Mediterranean in order to try and gain a measure of control over the production and transmission structures to Europe. For that purpose, it has a couple of entry points: Cyprus and Syria (and possibly Greece, whose bankruptcy could provide Russia with opportunities).

Back in July, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad reportedly asked the Lebanese Minister for Energy and Water Gebran Bassil to give priority to Russian companies to drill in Lebanon’s own gas fields. In other words, through Assad’s allies in Lebanon, Russia sought entry into the Eastern Mediterranean gas finds. Little wonder then that Walid Jumblatt highlighted this angle in his recent criticism of Russia’s position on Syria.

In both the Syrian and Cypriot cases, tensions with Turkey play a central part. When Ankara threatened Nicosia over the development of its gas fields, the Russians saw an opening and were quick to flex their muscles and interfere on the Greek Cypriots’ side, dispatching an aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean. The Russians then concluded a loan deal with the Cypriots, to help shield them against a possible Greek default. Curiously, shortly thereafter Cyprus released an arms-laden Russian ship which it had intercepted, and the ship ended up in Syria.

The attitude toward Turkey goes a long way in explaining Russia’s position on Syria as well. The Russians calculate, probably quite rightly, that the state situated to project the most influence in a post-Assad Syria is Turkey, especially as the US has subcontracted its Syria policy to Ankara. As it is, Russia and Turkey are locked in a complex game involving the flow of energy to Europe. And so, challenging Turkey and keeping it on its toes is a Russian interest, as is driving up energy prices.

What all this points to is that, contrary to the prevailing view, Russia sees very little to gain in a post-Assad Syria, and very little to lose in staking out its current position.

As such, former White House official Dennis Ross’s suggestion that “[u]nless the Russians change course… they will see their position deteriorate both and in the region more generally,” in fact gets Moscow’s calculation backwards.

The perception of power matters a great deal to the Kremlin. That they have stuck so strongly by Assad is a signal to the rest of the region – and any aspiring rogues that may vie for power – that they can count on Russia to back them in a fashion unimaginable to the Obama administration. At the heart of it, that’s the foundation of Russia’s strategic position in the region.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


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