Probably at no time the relationship between Russia and the people of Syria was at odds as these days. Syrians are angry with Russia as much as Russia is distracted by an attitude absorbed in international affairs. The following is an argument that Russia is not really working for its self-interest, and that there is an alternative course.
Losing a Second Ally
There is no doubt that the Russian administration evaluated its behavior toward the Libyan case. And unless it thinks that the Arab Spring is a passing fad, it makes more of a surprise that Russia is approaching the Syrian case in the same way.
Of course, the Libyan case is very different from that of Syria. Unlike Syria, the Libyan case was clearly winnable, given the country’s geography, size, and having the second largest city already slipped out of the hand of the regime. That is what encouraged the European and American administrations to go forward. Probably, what guided the Russian decision was the expectation that the Qaddafi regime will be able to hang on, at least in the western part of the country. In this way Russia maintains a strategic foot in North Africa that is increasingly coming under the influence of the western bloc. Such diminished Libya would be highly dependent on outside forces, namely Russia that stood solidly behind the regime. I do not know what was going in the minds of Russian strategists at that time, but whatever they thought then we know now that they got it wrong, badly wrong. Not only Russia lost investment opportunities in Libya, it also sank further in its stature.
By standing behind the Syrian regime, Russia might be thinking that it can recover what it lost due to its handling of Libya. This wish becomes especially convincing since that the Syrian case is much more complex than that of Libya, and because the western bloc is not ready to intervene. Convincingly, one might say that Russia is simply looking for preserving its influence regardless who assures that. But the sad fact is that the connections that Russia nurtured in Syria were heavily concentrated in the army and security forces. Such forces are strong but not reliable. They lack social depth, which means that they cannot be trusted at the time of delivery. Making a deal with elements totally disconnected from the populace shall fire back, and Russian influence would further erode. Despite that the security forces are tightly held in the hands of few personalities void of an institutional framework, Russia cannot be assured of any promise of loyalty, for such kind of loyalty in a time of uncertainty settles with the highest bidder.
Russia is still banking on a reformed regime that has enough elements from the past to insure the continuity of its influence and the preservation of its interests. But without a clean departure of the regime, it is near impossible to govern. The country will not fragment, but political power will. And as the US was dazzled by the fragmentary Lebanese politics, so would Russia in Syria. Given the level of violence that has been perpetuated by the regime, the blocking of a political solution acceptable by the masses is likely to produce an unstable situation that precludes foreign powers from yielding significant gains.
Russia is at risk of repeating the Bush’s administration miscalculation in Iraq, handing Syria to Iran on a silver plate. Russian thinking is known to be long-term. Is it now trading places with American shortsightedness?
The Empire Might Strike Back
It is not a secret that Russia considers Syria as a strategic country, and there are no reasons to give it away to Western powers. Russia recognizes that it lost Libya, so why should it gamble with Syria? Syria is strategic for many reasons, namely it extends a line of influence that is geographically contiguous from Russia to the Mediterranean Sea through Iran and Iraq. What a wonderful chance that has never opened before.
However, such rosy geopolitical picture looks very different if we attend to the details. It is Iran, not Russia, that would reap the lion share of the geopolitical advantage. Why should Iran surrender it to others? Unlike the distant Russian influence, Iran has real people and forces on the ground—the Shii of Lebanon and the new Shii-like in Syria. Iran would still cooperate with Russia, but it is only natural for it to try to monopolize the new advantage, having access to both the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Worse, realizing that it holds the keys in the area, Iran might be tempted to end its honeymoon with Russia. It becomes much more attractive to dump the old relationship and seek that of the Chinese. The Russian nuclear leverage (giving help to Iran’s nuclear program) becomes less significant as it becomes replaceable. The Chinese can offer competitive technological support that is less geopolitically attached at a lower price. And remember, the Chinese consume less Vodka than Russians, and red Confucianism is more attractive to the mullahs and prettier in their eyes.
Furthermore, we cannot forget that Iran is a theological state. As of now, it is an ambitious state working hard on asserting its regional standing. However, if things go the Iran’s way, we will be speaking of the Persian Empire, though in infancy. And it is a predatory empire by the very fact that it is ideological, not purely utilitarian. That should not be in the long-term interest of Russia.
In short, the seemingly delicious strategic opportunity that Russia is trying to exploit can easily turn into a historical blunder.
The Consciousness of the Masses
Russia needs to recognize that it holds on only a sliver of public support in Syria. Russia often feels that Arabs were not grateful for its long time support. However, the Arab public was exposed only to the Stalin side of Russia, not to its rich heritage. Syrians were not simply ungrateful to Russia, but their entrepreneurial genes instinctively rejected the Soviet economic model.
Russia does not want to yield to western pressures. But Russia can frame the issue in a way that does not compromise its stature. However, it cannot do that without becoming more realistic even if it is not in the mood of being idealistic.
One cannot overlook the situation on the ground in Syria. The story is not that of a regime suppressing its people in rough ways. It is a story of “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror,” as the Human Rights Watch report put it; and this June 2011 report was issued before the further development of horror. It is suppression that went personal; it cannot be characterized as a state practicing its right to monopolize force. It is a sadistic suppression jointly perpetuated by undisciplined army and thugs that intimately affected all the peoples of Syria, though in different ways depending on their background. This is the reality in the Syrians eyes, and no abstract explanation can be convincing—western countries are exploiting the situation; or the political opposition is not unified, etc. Here we might remind ourselves with Marx’s assertion that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but their social existence determines their consciousness.” The social existence of Syrians these days is terror, losing homes, and burying the dead of their relatives.
The above distinction regarding the nature of suppression is critical. That is because a brutal regime can put down a revolution and then continues to rule. But a regime that turned into criminal bandits ravaging many cities and towns will not be able to rule when violence abates, even if supported by a strong ally. The outcome then is likely to be that of chaos in which external interests could not be realized.
What makes the situation worse nowadays is that most of the Left who admires the Soviet ways, along with some clerics who curse the Soviet creed, tried to be the opium of the masses. Astonishingly, the proletariat, the peasants, and the petite bourgeoisie did not experience “false consciousness” and together turned into a “class for itself.”
Russia has no choice but to recognize that it has to make another bitter Perestroika in its relationship with the Syrian people. And it starts by a genuine political proposal that verifiably stops the killing machine of the regime. The Syrians can only listen to such a call, and Russia has an advantage over western countries in that regard. Russia has no alternative but to speak of humanity and to realize that scattered body parts and children being killed are associated in the minds of Syrians with Russian ammunition. With such a realization, Russia can offer a credible proposal and get Syrian listeners. Then Russia can start negotiating its interests.