What Russia Fears in Syrian Conflict


by Joe Lauria

Russia’s unyielding support for Damascus throughout the 16 months of Syria’s escalating crisis has earned Moscow strong condemnation from Washington and other Western governments, but the reasons for Russia’s implacable position have never been fully explained by Moscow or its critics.

Washington’s latest tension with Russia over Syria came last week in a face-to-face meeting between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin. The week before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Russia’s assertion that it sold only defensive weapons to Damascus “patently untrue.” That was after Clinton had accused Russia of shipping attack helicopters to Syria to crush the rebellion, a charge denied by Moscow. The New York Times then reported that Russia was only returning repaired helicopters sold to Syria decades ago.

In February, Susan Rice, the top U.S. diplomat at the U.N., used undiplomatically strong language to say the U.S. was “disgusted” by Russia’s veto of a Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian crackdown. The tough talk appears designed to embarrass Russia, especially after the recent upsurge in fighting and a string of grisly massacres blamed on Moscow’s client.

But until now Russia’s motives for defending Damascus have remained largely a subject of speculation, with the U.S. media seemingly disinterested in exploring it.

Russian officials say their position is based on an adamant opposition to regime change, particularly if it is led by Western military intervention, as in Libya. Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime has not changed though it has recently inched away from President Bashar al-Assad leading it.

Analysts routinely cite three additional reasons for Moscow’s Syria policy: Russia’s millions of dollars a year in legal arms sales to Syria, Russian naval access to a port at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and a desire to maintain its last ally in the Middle East.

But a clearer image of Russia’s stance comes into focus when put in the context of Moscow’s 30-year struggle against encroachment into its sphere of influence by militant Islam. The support at times given these groups by the U.S. and Gulf Arab nations has opened a three-decade rift with Russia that began in Afghanistan and has run across the Northern Caucasus to the Balkans and now into Syria.

Russia is opposed to regime change in Syria not only on principle, but because the likely new regime would be headed by an Islamist government inimical to Russian interests, analysts and diplomats say.

“You can talk about arms sales and the port, but the real thing that Russia is worried about is an Islamic government coming to power in Syria,” said a senior Western diplomat, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity because of the current tension in Western-Russian relations.

“Russia is obviously concerned about Islamic regimes, and perhaps most important of all, it is terrified of chaos,” said Mark Galeotti, who chairs the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He said chaos and anarchy in the Middle East fuels the rise of Islamic extremism.

“Russia feels that the West doesn’t know how to handle regime change and that the outcome is almost invariably the kind of the chaos from which Islamic extremist movements arise,” Galeotti said.

The dominant member of Syria’s opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood, suppressed for 40 years by President Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, before him. The discord in the Syrian opposition arises largely from differences between the Brotherhood and secular liberal groups, the Western diplomat said. The emergence of al-Qaeda–affiliated groups, responsible for several bombings, has added a menacing dimension.

“There is a general sense in Moscow that if Syria fell to extremists’ hands, the whole Middle East could explode, which is also a security concern for the Russians,” Galeotti said.

Russia’s struggle against Islamism has its roots in the 1979 to 1989 Afghan conflict, in which the Soviet Union ultimately failed with helicopter gunships and ground troops to defeat militant mujahedin armed with weapons, cash, and intelligence from Washington, Riyadh, and Islamabad. Shoulder-fired American Stinger rockets came to symbolize the conflict as they blasted Soviet helicopters out of the sky.

Russian troops withdrew in defeat in February 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 with analysts pointing to the Afghan debacle as a primary cause. Out of the war emerged Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, which later came to wreak havoc on its former sponsors.

Washington policymakers typically employ a short-term foreign policy that later comes back to haunt them, analysts said. From the Islamists’ point of view, it is hard to turn down American arms and financing when policies are aligned and then implement its agenda once it is helped to seize power.

“Afghanistan [under the pro-Moscow regime] was a secular government, women were not forced to cover, they were given suffrage, yes, it was a dictatorship, but the U.S. helped … overthrow [it] and replaced it with a religious, dogmatic theocracy that destroyed Afghanistan,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington.

“They are doing the same thing in Syria,” he said, predicting a failed state with uncontrolled, armed groups threatening the region. “You will see Afghanistan emerging in Syria next door to Israel and it will be a huge, huge problem for the United States,” with Lebanon devolving into the equivalent of Pakistan, he said.

The unfortunate choice in Syria is between a Russian-backed secular dictatorship, which allows freedom of religion and protects Christians, Alawis, and Sunni businessmen, or a U.S.- and Gulf-supported religious dictatorship with even fewer freedoms, Ahmed said. “They are repeating their history and Russia was both times on the other side,” Ahmed said.

The collapse of the Soviet Union after the Afghanistan defeat opened former Soviet republics in the Caucasus to an Islamic insurgency helped by the U.S. and the Gulf that still troubles Moscow.

“Chechnya is a classic example of what goes wrong when things go out of hand,” said Galeotti. “The West thought they would be politically supporting nationalists, reasonable figures, and they wind up creating a situation in which Islamic fundamentalists, terrorists, and suicide bombers found a haven.”

In the Balkans, Russia defended its traditional Slavic and Orthodox Christian Serb allies — against separatist Croatians and Bosnian Muslims, whom the International Criminal Court accused of hosting an al-Qaeda unit known as the “al-Mujahideen.”

Dmitri Simes, a former adviser to President Richard Nixon who heads the Center for the National Interest in Washington, says he still hears “a lot of anger” from Russian officials over what “the Clinton administration did in the Balkans.”

He see a parallel in Syria, where Russian officials are especially concerned about the fate of Christians if Islamists take over. “They are concerned that Muslim fundamentalists, not just the Muslim Brotherhood, but people more extreme might come to power and it would be destabilizing for the region,” Simes said. “But as Syria is not a Russian neighbor, a possible massacre of Christians would be seen as a greater problem.”

Russia might be willing to do a deal to try to ease out Assad, whom it sees as a liability, if the U.S. would offer something in return, such as an agreement on missile defense, he said. “If that was made clear to Russian officials, perhaps Putin would be prepared to deal,” Simes said. “But he is simply told that his position is morally inferior.”

In the absence of a deal, Moscow strongly fears Western military intervention to overthrow yet another Russian ally, Simes said, will lead to chaos.

Moscow is willing to deal because it had “no great sympathy for Assad even before he was in full massacre mode” and is backing away, realizing that “a regime like Assad’s is not in the long run sustainable,” said Galeotti.

“If it were clear that regime change were not on the cards, I think Russia would be a lot more willing as allies and interlocutors,” he said. “They are digging their heels in because they feel that the only policy the West is willing to push is regime change.”

Moscow would ideally prefer “a controlled, steady reformist who could in some ways manage the process and not allow Islamic fundamentalists to dominate the narrative,” Galeotti said.

Russia thinks Washington’s motive to remove Assad is to weaken Iran at almost any cost, Simes said.

The U.S. does not publicly discuss what it believes Russia’s motives are for backing Syria, leaving the impression that moral deficiency makes it complicit with Damascus.

The closest the U.S. has come to acknowledging Russia’s fear of an Islamist regime in Syria and America’s own apparent tolerance for it came from a cryptic remark by Clinton in the U.N. Security Council chamber last March with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sitting across from her.

“I know there are those who question whether Islamist politics can really be compatible with … democratic and universal principles and rights,” Clinton said. “Our policy is to focus less on what parties call themselves than on what they choose to do.”

Lavrov did not respond.

  1. #1 by on June 27, 2012 - 6:31 pm

    They want the wahabbits to take control, so ‘israel’ can invade to protect us from chemical wmd.

    Then they’ll give them to PKK and MeK. (sic)

  2. #2 by ruby22-kate on June 27, 2012 - 7:27 pm

    Moscow is willing to deal because it had “no great sympathy for Assad even before he was in full massacre mode” and is backing away, realizing that “a regime like Assad’s is not in the long run sustainable,” said Galeotti.

    Is Assad really in ‘full massacre mode’? Personally I think his restraint has been impeccable. As for Assad’s regime being unsustainable in the long run, history shows the opposite, as he’s been in power at least since 2001.

    I also question Russia’s sensitivity about Christians, since when has Russia embraced Christianity?
    Russia wants that warm water port, it also does not want to be excluded from the oil rich region.

    US & western aggression will lead to unimaginable chaos. Syrians will not know who to trust.
    People are still demonstrating in vast numbers to support Assad, they definitely believe they are better off with Assad than an unknown politico installed by Washington & the entity.

  3. #3 by galeada on June 27, 2012 - 8:28 pm

    Baloney This is what Israel fears, not Russia. You got it turned around.

  4. #4 by galeada on June 27, 2012 - 8:31 pm

    Who is this author anyway? Also known as a Greenburg:
    Joe Lauria is a New York-based independent foreign affairs correspondent, investigative journalist and author. A freelance member of the Sunday Times of London Insight team, he has also worked on investigations for the Boston Globe and Bloomberg News. Joe’s articles have additionally appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Montreal Gazette, The Johannesburg Star, The Washington Times, New York Magazine, ARTnews and other publications.

  5. #5 by bostonblah on June 27, 2012 - 9:03 pm

    just saw on the CNN ticker ” official: syria thought downed jet was israeli”

  6. #6 by SazzyLilSmartAzz on June 27, 2012 - 9:41 pm

    Thanks bostonblah

    Official: Syria might have thought downed jet was Israeli

    http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/27/world/meast/syria-turkey-plane/index.html

  7. #7 by FIREBUG on June 27, 2012 - 9:57 pm

    First of all my oppinion is that Galeotti is a complete ignorant IDIOT, making declarations as if he understands Putin’s mind and why He supports Syria, the facts are that people that are awake to what these criminal Zionist jews have been doing ever since Korea, the objective has always been the same the creation of chaos, that is what Satan does he is the god of CHAOS, and the Zionist jews like hillary,obama, and all the rest of zionist criminal mafia incorporated, do is worship satan the god of war and chaos , that is where they get their power, Putin knows that.
    That is better to have some dictator that is concerned with its people, than to have a zionist puppet placed by the zionist mafia. every thing is gear towards a one world government which will lead to 3 and 1/2 years of peace and then suden distruction will come out of a world kingdom created and led by the criminal zionist jew.

  8. #8 by FIREBUG on June 27, 2012 - 10:07 pm

    @ ruby 22-Kate Don’t be surprised ruby, god works miracles around the world not just in the united states, PUTIN IS AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN, that is the amasing grace of OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST, HERE WE HAVE A SATAN WORSHIPING BLACK ZIONSIT JEW IN THE WHITE HOUSE, THE CHRISTIAN NATION THAT WAS BLESSED BY OUR LORD FOR MANY DECADES, AND RUSSIA THE SO CALLED EVIL EMPIRE OF RONALD REAGAN A MAN WHOSE WIFE , CONSULTED WITH THE SPIRITS IN ORDER TO MAKE POLICE FROM THE WHITE HOUSE, WOULD BE VERY SURPRISED THAT PUTIN IS MORE OF A CHRISTIAN THAN REAGAN EVER WAS. SO YES PUTIN IS A CHRISTIAN THAT IS WHY HE IS CONSERNED COMARED WITH SATANIST OBAMA , AND HILLARY CLINTON WHO ARE TRYING TO GET RID OF CHRISTIANS AROUND THE WORLD AS THEY HAVE ALREADY DONE IN AMERICA.

  9. #9 by Isaac on June 27, 2012 - 11:30 pm

    Bostonblah. the down jet must be Israeli (american made) Israel has a surplus of military equipment stored in Turkey. Thanks to the US Congress who has given Israel unlimited amounts of equipment while the American people starve.

  10. #10 by Patty on June 28, 2012 - 2:38 am

    What doesn’t make any sense to me is that Russia keeps asking the US for assurances regarding the missile defenses the US wants to erect surrounding Russia. Russia cries ” Please tell us these missiles aren’t aimed at us & will not be used against us “.Since when is America’s word worth anything? Hey Russia, these missile defenses are needed for when they come after YOU. What’s really going on with Russia?

  11. #11 by ruby22-kate on June 28, 2012 - 4:29 am

    Firebug, thnx for the info, I had no idea Putin was Christian.

  12. #12 by Wally D on June 28, 2012 - 6:38 am

    @ Patty,
    Surely Putin knows that all those “defensive” missiles being installed around Russia are not there to stop ICBM’s from Iran.

  13. #13 by SazzyLilSmartAzz on June 28, 2012 - 2:32 pm

    Leaked: Shock footage allegedly shows Syrian family slain by rebels (GRAPHIC VIDEO)

    Published: 28 June, 2012, 13:49

    Footage showing the results of an alleged massacre in the Syrian city of Hama in April has been obtained by RT. Sources say that opposition rebels committed the atrocity.

    http://www.rt.com/news/syrian-family-massacre-rebels-936/

  14. #14 by Alex from Russia on June 28, 2012 - 3:58 pm

    “since when has Russia embraced Christianity?”, ruby22-kate writes. Whoahahahaha! :-)))))) From what planete [or Galaxy] are you from? Standard American level of education, eh? Ever heard about St. Vladimir of Kiev and what happened in 988 AD? Or about Saints Cyril and Methodius, who brought Christianity for my ancestors – proto-Cossacks/Brodniks in 860 already? Or about our ENDLESS list of our martyrs and saints, of our icons, our Christian thinkers, philosophers, writers, poets, artists, actors, warriors, statesmen, scientists, theologians? Dostoevsky, anymore? – as Brazilian writer Gustavo Corção told to my friend Sergei Sergeevich Bekhteev, “CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is the MOST Christian novel in the history of humanity”. But hell, who are we AL-RUUM Orthodox Oriental Christians after all before you, enlightened WESTERN MEN!

  15. #15 by Naeem on June 28, 2012 - 5:02 pm

    Russia knows the so called islamist government if it comes to power will be the sauds. Complete puppets to the west. Reality is russia,india,china,israel all occupy muslim lands so what better than to create disorder and blame islamists for the the problems and then complete whol scorched earth policy to get rid of your rivals. Lets not get carried away by putin his a shrewd politican find the documentary “the assasination of russia” when the FSB planted bombs to later be blamed on chechen militants and hence putin carried out his conquest and became a hero and came to power. Russia will be afraid of a muslim power esp if one resembles the khilafah not because it will massacre christians BUT it will challenge for power and demand freedom for the caucasus muslims and lands which russia doens’t wanna give up.

  16. #16 by ruby22-kate on June 28, 2012 - 5:09 pm

    Dearest Alex, of course I knew that Russia practiced what we Roman Catholics called Byzantine or Orthodox Christianity.
    You are right to note I have had a limited formal education, and the grade school education I did have was always railing against ‘godless communism.’

    So it surprised me that Putin is Christian, my understanding was that the Church had to go underground after (I’m guessing here) 1917.

    I’m glad you had a good laugh at my ignorance, maybe if you yourself are Christian you could correct me without so much gloating. thnx

  17. #17 by Alex from Russia on June 28, 2012 - 6:01 pm

    Dear ruby22-kate, sorry for being quick-tempered; it`s another our Oriental habit ;-) Am Orthodox actually, being btw relative of the Georgian Patriarch Ilya the Second [via my older step-sister]. But the whole our very ancient Don Cossack clan are Orthodox Old-Believers [kinda Christian Separatists], who, for example, live in Alaska tambien

    Our Patriarch are avidly anti-liberal.

    http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_05_30/76450236/

    as for Putin – he`s normal pretty Conservative Orthodox Christian. Rev. Nathaniel Kapner writes/tells about it frequently, also ck out Rev. M. Raphael Johnson` webpage:

    http://reasonradionetwork.com/programs/the-orthodox-nationalist

    Sorry again if I offended you…………..

  18. #18 by ruby22-kate on June 29, 2012 - 5:20 am

    dear Alex, thnx for opening a whole new world to me via the video & links. No offense taken, appreciate your thoughtful replies

  19. #19 by Naeem on June 30, 2012 - 5:08 pm

    Alex from Russia – Are you are cossack? If yes well you were born into a nation of warriors very feared and respected. The backbone of the russian empire without a doubt.

  20. #20 by ruby22-kate on July 1, 2012 - 2:36 pm

    I have huge gaps in learning, as I love to read, but usually only read what I’m interested in. I know I already thanked Alex for directing my attention to the ‘Old Believers.’

    I plan to learn more about them, as they definitely piqued my interest.

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