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Why Russia is so opposed to asking Assad to go

Russia has warned that there is “no chance” it will allow passage of a resolution on the spiraling domestic conflict in Syria.

Russia has warned that there is “no chance” it will allow passage of a resolution on the spiraling domestic conflict in Syria, due to come before the UN Security Council in the next few days, if it leaves even the slightest opening for outside intervention in the crisis.

Moscow‘s tough line on the issue has put it increasingly at odds not only with the West, but also many Arab states who support a resolution put forward by Morocco that would demand Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad step aside and hand power to his deputy as a first step toward a democratic transition. According to the UN, more than 5,400 people have died in an increasingly brutal crackdown since pro-democracy protesters first took to the streets almost a year ago.

The Syrian government blames the violence on armed “terrorists” affiliated with Al Qaeda, who it says have killed more than 2,000 security personnel since the uprising began.

“This [draft resolution] is missing the most important thing: a clear clause ruling out the possibility that the resolution could be used to justify military intervention in Syrian affairs from outside,” Russia’s envoy to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying Wednesday.

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“For this reason I see no chance this draft could be adopted,” he added.

Russia is one of five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, so unless it can be persuaded to at least abstain, there seems no chance of survival for any proposal that involves outside political interference, sanctions, a Libya-style no-fly zone, or even a military-backed humanitarian corridor aimed at getting supplies to stricken Syrian civilians.

Syria has been a political partner and key regional client state of Moscow since 1971, and is the last remaining major customer for Russian arms in the Middle East. Over the past year, Russia sacrificed about $4.5-billion in broken arms deals with Libya, and lost as much as $13-billion due to UN sanctions against Iran, experts say.

“Moscow is afraid events in Syria will spin out of control,” says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. “We have lots of economic interests that we stand to lose, but this is not the main thing. The loss of political influence is more important, because Syria is the last point in the Middle East where Russia has a major role to play…. Russia fears that the US is out to engineer regime change in this strategic region, and Russia is simply not going to play any part in granting authority for that.”

Reflexive opposition to foreign intervention
The Kremlin has always reflexively opposed foreign intervention (unless the subject was a Soviet satellite country), which in the past was equated in ideological terms with Western colonialism and imperialism. Post-Soviet Russia has cooperated occasionally with the West, as it did in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but often came away feeling that its interests were ignored or overridden by the triumphant West.

A year ago, Moscow was persuaded to abstain on Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a No Fly Zone over Libya in order to “protect civilian lives,” but which Russia now believes was interpreted by Western powers as a license to provide military backing for regime change, ending with the overthrow and murder of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

“Syria is situated not far from our own borders, and nobody can predict how forceful solutions may play out,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma’s foreign affairs committee. “It may seem easy to advocate and plan these things from the safety of Washington, but we remember the chaos that was unleashed after the US invaded Iraq. The prospects for similar breakdown in Syria are just as great.”

On Tuesday US secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Russia may be making too much out of its fears that the “Libya scenario” might be repeated in Syria. “That is a false analogy,” Mrs. Clinton was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying at the UN Security Council meeting.

“Nobody in Moscow takes Western arguments seriously anymore. After all that’s happened, we frankly don’t think they know what they’re doing,” says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. “What’s going on in Syria is a civil war, one that threatens to turn into a massive bloodbath, many times worse than Libya. Does the US have any plans for dealing with this? And what about Russia’s interests? Who will defend those? It should be perfectly obvious why Moscow isn’t going to enable any more Western-backed adventures in the Middle East.”

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Russian officials insist they are not backing Assad, despite the fact that Moscow continues to ship arms to Syria, but that they are standing on the principle of sovereignty and the right of nations to work out their own internal difficulties without external interference.

“We have proposed a resolution based on law and noninterference, but we are told that this is unacceptable,” says Klimov.

Russia’s favored draft resolution would condemn violence on all sides in Syria’s increasingly civil-war-like conflict, and urge peaceful dialogue between the rebels and the government. But it would exclude any form of overt outside support for the anti-Assad insurgents.

“Russia’s policy is not about asking someone to step down; regime change is not our profession,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday, according to the independent Interfax agency.

“We are not friends or allies of President Assad. We never said that Assad remaining in power is a precondition for regulating the situation. Our position is different: we have said that the decision should be made by the Syrian people themselves,” he added.

Mr. Lavrov also insisted that Russian arms supplies to Syria were not meant to help the regime overcome its domestic opposition.

“We signed some contracts and contracts must be implemented,” he added. “We are arming the constitutional government: We don’t approve of what it is doing, using force against demonstrators but we’re not picking sides, we’re implementing our commercial contractual obligations.”