Why Russia Supports Syria’s Assad

Since the start of the Arab Spring, Russia and to a lesser degree, China, has come under heavy criticism for its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s former leader Muammar Qadhafi. In previous international conflicts, Russia generally supported anti-Western leaders such as former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Many observers seem genuinely frustrated that Russia has provided arms and diplomatic cover to the Assad regime.

What explains Russia’s behaviour? The most basic reason is that Moscow has, or has had commercial or military interests in these countries that could be jeopardised by a change of regime.

However, there is a bigger reason, namely that the ‘Great Powers’ still view world politics as a ‘zero-sum game’. In other words, the fall of a Russia- or China-friendly regime is regarded as a ‘gain’ for America, and vice-versa. This explains why China is concerned about Myanmar’s rapprochement with the US, and why Beijing continues to prop up North Korea. This ‘zero-sum’ perspective is a holdover from the Cold War.

Russia has valid reasons for its present worldview. During the 1990s, Moscow generally adopted a highly cooperative attitude towards the West, as reflected by its green-lighting the US-led 1991 Gulf War against Iraq (a well-established Soviet ally), dissolving the Warsaw Pact, withdrawing all of its troops from Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, and eventually pressuring Yugoslavia to acquiesce in NATO’s entry into Kosovo in 1999. Yet despite its cooperation, Russia regards itself as having received relatively little in return from the West, with NATO expansion taking place over Moscow’s objections, the alliance subsequently attacking Russia-friendly Yugoslavia, and the US pressing ahead with plans for a missile defence shield. Russia did receive considerable economic assistance from the West, but this only added to its sense of wounded pride.

All of the above happened at a time when Russia was very weak as a result of the post-Soviet economic collapse. Following the ascent of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s leader in 1999, and thanks to the country’s economic revival due to rising oil prices in the 2000s, Moscow is now much more willing and able to defend its perceived interests abroad.

Let us suppose that Russia abandoned Bashar al-Assad, or took active steps to remove him from office. It is difficult to see what Moscow would gain from this. Possibly a few words of gratitude from the US, but very few tangible rewards, if any. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s influence in the Levant would have been weakened, as the new Syrian regime would be highly unlikely to view Russia favourably. Furthermore, there would be no guarantee that Syria would be last occasion where the West and Russia found themselves on opposing political sides. There is still Belarus, and probably several other Soviet republics.