What’s the secret behind Russia’s love for Assad?
Why is Russian policy still clinging to a worn-out regime that has no future?
We don't have explanations for Russia's position on the Syrian crisis since it started four years ago; there are no mutual defense treaties and the Syrian regime does not add any strategic value to Moscow in the regional conflict. Add to that, Syria is certainly not influential in the international balance; it does not have water crossings, sources of energy or major consumer markets. Moreover, the Syrian opposition did not clash with Russia – on the contrary, it tried to institute ties with the Russians despite the massive support Moscow sent to the Syrian regime after military setbacks.
If there are no worthy interests, strategic values, or military and financial deals, why is the Russian policy still clinging to a worn-out regime that has no future?
During the past two years I asked many activists and political observers hoping to understand the Russian way of thinking, but no one was able to give me a convincing explanation for Moscow's commitment to supporting Assad in Damascus. I was told that it is a relationship that falls within a greater relationship with Iran, but this would make it a minor issue then. I was also told that they are using the Syrian crisis to negotiate with the West, but the West is not interested in who will rule Damascus tomorrow.
Why is Russian policy still clinging to a worn-out regime that has no future?Abdulrahman al-Rashed
They said that the Kremlin supports Assad because of the Tartus port, which is the only Mediterranean base for the Russian navy, but I know that the Syrian opposition promised to respect an agreement regarding this port. They also said that the Russians are financially exploiting Syria, but this is irrelevant compared to their greater trade with the Gulf countries, especially that the payments of the trades with Syria are usually delayed or bartered with Iran.
A confusing pro-Assad stance
I was also told that Russia supports the regime because it wants to fight terrorists in Syria, but we know that this pro-Assad stance dates way back to before the emergence of ISIS and al-Nusra Front. The Russians were keen to support the regime in order to distress the moderate opposition. Also, the moderate opposition had already offered to cooperate with Russia to fight extremist groups that emerged from Russian regions of influence, such as Khorasan and Chechnya.
Indeed, there is no logical explanation for it, especially that the Russians have made the same mistake before, when they supported the Assad regime after its involvement in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Russia had disrupted international efforts to punish Syria and supported it economically. When the regime achieved a breakthrough in its relations with France after Sarkozy took office, Assad requested Paris’ mediation to reinstate ties with the Americans. At that time, an Arab official told me that the Russians were upset because Assad exploited their support and then embraced the West. The Russians have said they know Assad will return one day to ask for their help.
Of course, the policies are based on interests, and if we found there to be one worthy interest behind the Russian stance supporting the Syrian regime, we would have better understood this.
Now, Moscow does not only send its military experts to fight the rebels with ammunition and explosive barrels, but it also wants to rehabilitate Assad to hold on to his presidency! It is trying to hold conferences aiming to wipe out the opposition, proposing a political plan to form a joint government between the regime and the opposition under the leadership of Assad. However, the opposition, representing more than two-thirds of the Syrian people, will surely reject the Russian plan. These strategies will not succeed no matter what the Russians and Iranians seek to impose.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on January 17, 2015.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.