Why is Syria So Important to Russia and Putin?

by Joshua Tucker on September 5, 2013 · 7 comments

in Comparative Politics,Foreign Policy,International Relations,International Security

Russia Syrian Game

The following is a guest post from UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman.

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As the White House rounds up support for a military strike against Syria, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his disapproval. What lies behind the Russian position? Why is Putin so seemingly attached to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad?

It is tempting to attribute Moscow’s resistance to US intervention to some kind of psychological hangup—say, wounded pride at Russia’s fallen status or an atavistic Cold War mentality. To former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, quoted by Peter Baker in the New York Times, Putin is “about lost power, lost empire, lost glory.” President Obama recently took to analyzing Putin’s “slouch.”

Yet, in fact, there’s a logic behind Putin’s position on Syria that is really not that hard to understand. It has more to do with realpolitik than psychology.

Some have pointed to Russia’s economic interests in Syria, but these are actually quite modest. Trade between the two countries is inconsequential. In 2011, Russian exports to Syria came to $1.93 billion, about 0.4 percent of the total. Imports from Syria were just $306 million. As of 2009, Russia had an estimated $19.4 billion of investments in the country, although that might have risen since then.

Syria matters slightly more for Russia’s weapons producers, who have excellent channels of communication with the Kremlin. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s estimates, Russian arms exports to Syria in the five years from 2008 to 2012 totaled about $1.1 billion (at 1990 prices) out of a worldwide total of $35.2 billion. Contracts for future supplies come to several billion dollars. Russian companies would also like to develop Syria’s oil fields. Still, all considered, Moscow’s economic stake in the country is relatively small.

Nor does Putin’s position have much to do with the naval station at Tartus that Syria has provided Russia for the past 40 years. Of course, Moscow would like to keep this last remaining naval foothold in the Mediterranean, and it has planned for some years to refurbish the port. But at present facilities there are very limited. The station can accommodate no more than four medium sized ships at once.

Putin’s real motivation in opposing US involvement in Syria’s civil war is simple: he strongly objects to US policies of regime change, especially when backed up by military force. There are two main reasons. First, he is intensely aware that many in Washington would like to see his regime changed. Although overthrowing Putin is not an objective of US policy, he resists any extension of the practice.

The second reason is that he sees past episodes of US-sponsored regime change—in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya—as having replaced stable, albeit sometimes unattractive, dictatorships with dangerous chaos. In the choice between stable authoritarian strongmen and unstable partial democracies, riven by sectarian conflicts, he chooses the former. Instability in the Muslim world—which extends to Russia’s North Caucasus and Volga republics as well as it’s Central Asian “soft underbelly”—is something policymakers in Moscow fear.

Finally, Putin is not satisfied by the various reassurances that Washington has given in this case. This has less to do with Cold War legacies of distrust than with the historical record. Saying the US strike will be “limited” merely recalls the 2011 “limited” Western intervention in Libya, which did not stop until Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had been overthrown and killed. Putin is also cynical about a US operation to punish Assad for using chemical weapons given that the US continued to support Saddam Hussein after that dictator used poison gas to murder Kurdish Iraqis in 1988.

In short, Putin sees a US foreign policy that is aimed more at securing influence around the globe and overthrowing adversaries than at enforcing international norms. Previous US interventions in the Middle East have, in his view, increased instability and the danger of sectarian conflict spreading across borders. Given this, he considers US military operations around the globe as not in his—or Russia’s—interest. Although we might not like this position, it is understandable.

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Photo Credit: The World Tribune

{ 7 comments }

jonathan September 5, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Additional, related reasons include:

1. Syria has been largely secular. That really matters to Russia because it has been dealing with Islamic insurgency that has brought terror to the heart of Moscow. Syria has stood for the possibility that Islamic countries and thus, one assumes, Islamic republics within Russia, can survive, be stable and even do well under secular control.

2. The last thing Russia wants is Sunni rebels emboldened and empowered. The Chechen War was a disaster in every way. Chechens and indeed nearly all Muslims in Russia are Sunni. The US forgets that Russia has these real, major issues and that the last thing they want is to have their Sunni population radicalized and militarized further.

anonymous September 5, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Back in the 1990s I had a couple of dinners with three KGB guys (one of them very famous). They had posed as journalists and diplomats, but they weren’t shy about who they really were. One thing that came up a couple of times was that they LOVED Syria. They gushed about how much fun they had there. I don’t know if Damascus is a underrated party town, or if this is a hookers and blow deal, but these guys sincerely had a thing for Syria.

Also, I know there are a lot of Russians who live there, and a lot of Russia-Syrian intermarriage.

Scott Monje September 5, 2013 at 10:21 pm

I would only add that the adversaries that the US helps overthrow (with the exception of Egypt) tend to be friends of Moscow. Even if they don’t amount to much individually, it adds up. Also, it could have an impact on future alliance decisions. Who wants to be the ally of the guy whose allies always get overthrown?

Todd Phillips September 6, 2013 at 11:31 am

Perhaps Putin also has more sense than Obama. Why should the US get involved in another international quagmire, spend billions doing it, and create more instability & chaos in the region? This seems strangely consistent with what GWB did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Have we not learned our lesson? Incomprehensible.

Sandy Thatcher September 6, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Remember the influence that the USSR used to wield in Egypt? Once that country was solidly in the U.S. camp, Russia needed to continue having some foothold in the region even more. A secular Syria looked like an attractive partner. This all makes perfectly good historical and geopolitical sense.

Yes, Russia prefers stable authoritarian regimes that can maintain order. But it was not so long ago that the U.S. had the same approach in many parts of the world, not least in Latin America where dictators like Pinochet were preferred over restless democracies where leftist political forces posed a presumed threat to U.S. interests. I suspect even now the U.S. would prefer a stable Syria ruled by a secular autocrat over the chaotic “democracies” of Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, etc. Order abroad has almost always been more important to the U.S. than promoting real democracy.

decora September 9, 2013 at 12:59 am

uhmm. like the stable, authoritarian dictator in Uzbekistan, who regularly tortures people, runs slave labor camps, and has a police force whose signature dish is rape?

we needed an air-base to invade neighboring Afghanistan though, so we buddied up to him, had ‘security conferences’ where our cops went to meet their cops, etc etc.

media never gave a shit. even when the UK ambassador blew the whistle on the whole thing and got fired. nobody gave a shit. now, all of a sudden, we are supposed to give a shit.

Obama is a fucking fool.

Chaz September 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm

You make some good points. A couple quibbles:

First, the US did not sponsor regime change in Egypt. Protesters rose up, and the army turned on him. Obama has maintained a clear policy of supporting whoever was in power (Mubarak then the army then Morsi then the army), without giving any actual support (aside from our longstanding deal of gifts of US arms in exchange for tacit support for Israel), while contorting himself in public to appear to oppose tyranny.

Second, you are speculating but you phrase your statements as fact.

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