This article is the follow-up on a previous article that I wrote on Syria.
In the previous mentioned article I promised to write a 2nd article about the interests of Russia, China and the Gulf states in Syria. On July 19 Russia and China vetoed another UN resolution about Syria (South Africa and Pakistan abstained from voting). This gives us a good opportunity to look at their interests in Syria. In this article I want to focus on Russia.
So how did Russia explain the use of its veto power?
Asked what the West’s geopolitical designs in Syria were, the Russian ambassador to the UN Mr. Churkin said, “It’s all about Iran.” He said “unexpected changes brought about by the [2003 U.S.] invasion of Iraq,” which had strengthened Iran, required the West to weaken Tehran by challenging its ally in Damascus. “There is no serious person I’ve talked to that doubts that a major geopolitical battle is being fought in Syria and the people of Syria have no interest in that.”
Mr. Churkins explanation is very similar to the argument about the role that human rights violations play in Western policy that I made in my article “US and Iranian agenda in Syria” Therefore I assume it is clear that I largely agree with this statement.
In an interview with Russia today Mr Churkin further explained Russia’s veto. He elaborates on why Western policy is all about geopolitics and curbing Iranian influence.
Russia’s geopolitical interests
However, Mr Churkin fails to mention that the great humanitarians in the West are not the only ones that have a geopolitical agenda in Syria. Russia definitely has geopolitical interests of its own.
There are 3 interests that have been frequently mentioned in the media: Russia has arms deals with Syria every year that are worth millions of dollars. Also the fact that Syria is Russia’s last ally in the Middle East which it obviously does not want to lose. And finally the port in Syria that Russia uses to deploy its forces in the eastern Mediterranean and vicinity.
I would like to make an additional comment on the Russian port in Syria.
Russia may have made a wrong judgment call concerning the port and the Assad regime. Last year, a Syrian national Council official participated in talks with the Russian government about a possible Russian port under a regime after Assad. But after Russia’s firm backing of the Assad regime it seems highly unlikely that if the rebels manage to bring down the government of Assad that there is still place for a Russian port in the “new syria”.
Russia has 2 other important geopolitical interests in Syria that mainstream media rarely write about. The 1st has its roots in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since this breakup Russia and the United States have been competing for influence throughout the former Soviet union. Competing for influence may sound a little vague so let me give you 2 concrete examples:
Ukraine’s parliament has adopted in the first reading a bill that grants Russian the status of regional language in 13 out of the country’s 27 regions. It is a highly controversial bill that caused large protests on the streets and even fistfights between members of the parliament!
An even better example is the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Russia provided military support to South Ossetia which was trying to separate from Georgia. This resulted in a 5 day war between Russia and Georgia that ended with Russian recognition of South Ossetian independence.
The war was a clear display of power by the Russians and there was nothing the United States could do in response. The reason the United States left Georgia helpless was simply a lack of troops. The United States was involved in 2 major wars at the time.With a vast amount of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan it was incapable of backing up Georgia.
So what does this have to do with Syria?
Since 9/11 the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worldwide war on terror have absorbed a very large part of US resources. Russian influence was of secondary importance. But all of this is changing.
By now the United States has left Iraq and is in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan. The Middle East is becoming less the center of gravity for American foreign policy. As a result of that the United States can divert its attention to other regions like the former Soviet Union. This means that it will become more difficult for Russia to secure its interests. That’s why Russia is trying to encourage any process that could draw the United States into the Middle East. Crucial in this strategy is supporting Iran and Syria.
Russia’s final geopolitical interest has to do with its fight against an Islamist insurgency in the northern Caucasus. Because these insurgency groups are mostly Sunni, Russia is cautious of Sunni extremists in the Syrian opposition that could fuel the North-Caucasus insurgency. It doesn’t want radical Sunnis to get a hold of Syria.
History taught us Western intervention has a good chance of getting messy and chaotic, chaos tends to give rise to Islamic extremism.
Moscow would ideally prefer a controlled, steady reformist who could in some ways manage the process and won’t allow Islamic fundamentalists to dominate.
And of course Russia has a general reluctance against the meddling in domestic affairs of other countries because it doesn’t want the West to get involved in its domestic human rights issues.
So as much as I agree with Mr Churkin that Western policy on Syria is all about geopolitics, the West by no means stands alone. Geopolitics tends to be the key factor driving policymakers no matter what they tell you.