Russian policy in the Middle East has been largely driven by pragmatic calculations of trade and geopolitical influence, in direct opposition to notions of liberal interventionalism and the ‘Arab Spring’. This week’s shocking massacre by Syrian forces in Houla, however, has fundamentally challenged the durability of that approach. Will Russia now fall in line with the position of its western partners? wonders Margot Light.
This has been a bad week for the Russian government. After months of agreeing with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad that the opposition was responsible for the continuing violence, Russia’s representative to the United Nations was forced to accept evidence that Syrian government forces were guilty of attacking a residential area of Houla with close-range artillery and tank shells, causing the death of more than100 men, women and children. The UN Security Council (UNSC) issued a press statement — which requires the agreement of all 15 members — condemning the outrageous use of force against civilians which violated international law and the commitments given by the Syrian government under previous UN resolutions to stop all violence, including the use of heavy weapons in populated areas.
'When Putin became president of Russia in 2000, he began to pursue quite clear goals in the Middle East. They included regaining some of the influence the Soviet Union had wielded and expanding Russia’s share of Middle Eastern markets.'
It seemed for a while that Russia’s attitude had moved a little closer to the position of western countries. However, by the next day the Russian government had backtracked, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisting that both sides were to blame. Why has Russian policy towards Syria been so much at odds with western policy?
Putin’s Middle East policy
When Putin became president of Russia in 2000, he began to pursue quite clear goals in the Middle East. They included regaining some of the influence the Soviet Union had wielded and expanding Russia’s share of Middle Eastern markets. Russian policy also aimed at ensuring stability in an area which – because of its close proximity to Russia’s southern neighbours — is deemed to affect the security of Russia itself. Russia has been thwarted in achieving these goals by western policy and by the ‘Arab spring’.
Iraq and Syria were two of the fourteen countries with which the Soviet Union concluded treaties of Friendship and Cooperation in the 1970s. Although they had often been uneasy relationships, one way in which Russia hoped to regain influence in the Middle East was by reviving relations with these traditional Soviet allies. Russia could not prevent the attack on Iraq or the fall of Saddam Hussein, and this demonstrated how little influence Moscow really had in the Middle East. It has been determined to avert President Bashar al-Assad succumbing to a similar fate, which would further undermine Russian influence in the area. In fact, if Russia were successful in brokering a deal to bring the conflict to a peaceful end, its continued influence in Syria would be assured and, at the same time, its international prestige would be boosted more generally.
As for the goal of expanding Russia’s share of Middle Eastern markets, it has also not been very successful. First, the Iraqi war scuppered all hopes of Russia receiving repayment of the $8 billion Iraqi Soviet-era debt. It also brought an end to the ten-year programme for the Development of Trade, Economic, Industrial and Scientific-Technical Cooperation that Russia had negotiated with Iraq, and was said to be worth $40 billion. Second, when the Libyan uprising began, Russia supported Security Council Resolution 1970 calling for an arms embargo on Tripoli – at an estimated economic cost of $4 billion in interrupted and lost contracts. Muammar Gaddafi’s fall from power inflicted a fatal blow to Russia’s commercial relations with Libya. The economic policy of the new Libyan government would almost certainly favour the countries that had facilitated its victory at the expense of existing and future contracts with Russian firms.
Russia’s economic ties with Syria are more valuable than those with Libya. Syria is an important customer for Russian arms. In 2010 alone, some US$15 billion of contracts were negotiated, and exports are expected to stay at a level of US$10 billion a year until at least 2014. There are also valuable energy links: Gazprom, Tatneft and Stroytransgaz have significant energy exploration and pipeline projects in Syria. Moscow believes that these valuable economic links would be jeopardized if President Bashar al-Assad were to lose power.
‘Russia could not prevent the attack on Iraq or the fall of Saddam Hussein, and this demonstrated how little influence Moscow really had in the Middle East. It has been determined to avert President Bashar al-Assad succumbing to a similar fate, which would further undermine Russian influence in the area.’
In Moscow’s view, the ‘Arab spring’ undermined the stability of an area which was already potentially very volatile, given the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the danger that western animosity towards Iran would culminate in armed conflict. The attack by Syrian government forces on refugee camps across the Turkish border last month and sectarian clashes in Lebanon last week demonstrate just how important Syria is to regional stability. Syrian stability is, Moscow believes, vital to Middle East stability. But Russia is concerned not just about the stability of the region. Syrian security is important because Syria is essential to Moscow's military strategy. Russia relies heavily on its naval base at the Mediterranean port of Tartus and associated assets at Latakia.
Although events in the Middle East have largely been responsible for the difficulties Russia has had in achieving these three goals, Moscow blames western policy for getting in its way.
The different principles underlying Western and Russian foreign policy
Apart from the ways in which western policies have prevented Russia from achieving its specific Middle Eastern goals, Russian policy is frequently at odds with western policy simply because the ideas about international relations on which western countries and Russia base their policy are very different. Indeed, they are often incompatible.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, western foreign policy (in particular American policy) has been based on the principles of liberal internationalism. This is a doctrine that argues that liberal states should intervene in other sovereign states in order to pursue liberal objectives. Such intervention can include both military invasion and humanitarian aid and it frequently implies regime change.
Since President Putin became president of Russia, by contrast, geopolitical realism has predominated in Russian foreign policy thinking. This means that the highest value is accorded to the preservation of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence and the most important principle of international law is held to be the principle of non-intervention. Moscow objects most strongly to policies that are undertaken with a view to bringing about regime change.
‘Russian policy is frequently at odds with western policy simply because the ideas about international relations on which western countries and Russia base their policy are very different. Indeed, they are often incompatible.’
President Putin, in particular, believes that when Russia abstained from voting on resolution 1973, thus tacitly agreeing to the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, it was conned by western countries into accepting regime change, since the coalition enforcing it (in effect, NATO) immediately began exceeding the terms of the resolution. Not surprisingly, given that they explicitly called for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, Moscow has twice vetoed UNSC resolutions on Syria.
On the other hand, Moscow supported Kofi Annan’s peace plan because it called for political negotiation and demanded that both the government and the opposition should cease using armed violence. Despite constant evidence that its terms were being breached, Russia has continued to support the plan and to resist any attempt to set, as Lavrov’s put it, ‘ultimatums and artificial deadlines’.
The shock of the massacre in Houla may well mean that Russia will attempt to put more pressure on the Syrian government. But this is not the first time that Bashar al-Assad and his government forces have shocked and embarrassed the Russians and Russia has certainly made frequent strenuous efforts to persuade Assad to fulfill the obligations entailed by the Annan plan. The chances are that Assad has shown himself as impervious to Russian appeals as his father was to Soviet pressure in the 1970s and 1980s. And although Moscow has recently appeared to begin to seriously consider the possibility of Assad's early departure, it will have to be a departure to which he himself agrees, because Russia will not support demands for him to relinquish power. Nor will Moscow assent to arming the opposition or agree to foreign military intervention in Syria.