The Syrian Crisis: Russian Policy Risks Wider Conflict

Russ­ian sup­port of Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad’s crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment insur­gents bodes ill for Moscow’s abil­i­ty to pre­vent chaos and anar­chy in Syr­ia and risks wider con­flict in the Fer­tile Cres­cent and beyond.


Russ­ian pol­i­cy towards the Syr­i­an cri­sis is seen inter­na­tion­al­ly as sup­port­ing pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad’s bru­tal crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment insur­gents and oppo­si­tion pro­tes­tors. In Syr­ia, where intense fight­ing has spread from Dam­as­cus to Alep­po, many believe the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty has aban­doned them and left to fend for them­selves against the supe­ri­or fire­pow­er of the Syr­i­an mil­i­tary.

Russia’s pro-Assad pol­i­cy bodes ill for Moscow’s abil­i­ty to con­tribute to pre­vent­ing a descent into chaos and anar­chy by a post-Assad Syr­ia. It also holds out lit­tle promise for Russia’s abil­i­ty to help pre­vent the Syr­i­an cri­sis from spilling across bor­ders into Lebanon, Iraq, Jor­dan and Turkey. The risk for Rus­sia is that its pro-Assad pol­i­cy will pro­duce the very sit­u­a­tion it is seek­ing to avoid: increased volatil­i­ty and con­flict across the Fer­tile Cres­cent that could rein­force already restive pop­u­la­tion groups and Islam­ic mil­i­tants in its own Mus­lim republics. It also risks trou­bling its rela­tions with post-revolt states in the Mid­dle East and North Africa where pub­lic opin­ion has lit­tle sym­pa­thy for the Assad regime and its per­ceived back­ers.

Russia’s Islamist mil­i­tants

Recent attacks on two promi­nent Mus­lim cler­ics in the Russ­ian autonomous oil-rich repub­lic of Tar­tarstan on the Vol­ga Riv­er, may help explain Russ­ian sup­port for the Assad regime. With­in min­utes of each oth­er in July, Tartarstan’s deputy mufti was assas­si­nat­ed and the mufti wound­ed in two sep­a­rate but care­ful­ly timed attacks.

The two men, Valilul­la Yakupov and Idius Faizov, were known for their crit­i­cism of mil­i­tant Islam, and their sup­port for Russ­ian fed­er­al gov­ern­ment efforts to iso­late the mil­i­tants and their com­mer­cial inter­est in the lucra­tive busi­ness of pil­grim­ages to the holy city of Mec­ca. To counter the mil­i­tants, who are spread­ing out from their base in Chech­nya and the Cau­ca­sus, the two muftis had fired extrem­ist cler­ics and banned the use of reli­gious text­books from ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive Sau­di Ara­bia.

The influx of rad­i­cal cler­ics was in response to a call by Chechen sep­a­ratist leader Doku Umarov, the self-described emir of an Islam­ic emi­rate in the Cau­ca­sus, for mil­i­tants to extend their area of oper­a­tions from the Cau­ca­sus to lands that once were part of the Gold­en Horde, a medieval Mus­lim state ruled by a Tar­tar-Mon­gol dynasty. Tar­tarstan, with its oil wealth and 4 mil­lion res­i­dents of which half are Mus­lim, is for Umarov, a log­i­cal tar­get. He has claimed respon­si­bil­i­ty for last year’s attack on a Moscow air­port and a 2010 bomb­ing in the city’s metro sys­tem that togeth­er killed 75 peo­ple.

A small price to pay

Umarov’s ide­o­log­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal ambi­tions go a long way in explain­ing Russia’s oth­er­wise incom­pre­hen­si­ble sup­port for a bru­tal regime in Syr­ia that has proved inca­pable of defeat­ing an increas­ing­ly well-armed and effec­tive insur­gency. Russ­ian sup­port has earned it the scorn of the West and the Arab world and bodes ill for the future of Russ­ian rela­tions with a post-Assad Syr­ia and oth­ers in the Arab world. Cham­bers of com­merce in Sau­di Ara­bia have already refused to meet with Russ­ian trade del­e­ga­tions and a Sau­di con­trac­tor has bro­ken its com­mer­cial ties to its Russ­ian coun­ter­parts in protest against Russ­ian pol­i­cy.

That may be a rel­a­tive­ly small price to pay from Russia’s per­spec­tive which views the Mid­dle East much like the Unit­ed States did pri­or to the 9/11 attacks. Like pre‑9/11 Wash­ing­ton, Moscow sees auto­crat­ic regimes in the region as pil­lars of sta­bil­i­ty, in a world that oth­er­wise would pro­duce Islamists, as the only buffer against chaos and anar­chy.

The civ­il war in Syr­ia where Islamists dom­i­nate the insur­gency, the Islamist elec­toral vic­to­ries in Egypt and Tunisia, and the polit­i­cal uncer­tain­ty in Libya and Yemen rein­force a view of the pop­u­lar revolts sweep­ing the region as a devel­op­ment that is too close for com­fort to Russia’s soft under­bel­ly in the Cau­ca­sus. It also strength­ens Russ­ian per­cep­tions of US and Euro­pean sup­port of the revolts as cyn­i­cal hypocrisy that ulti­mate­ly could tar­get auto­crat­ic rule in Rus­sia itself.

Then pres­i­dent George W. Bush, in a rare recog­ni­tion of the pit­falls of decades of US pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East and North Africa, acknowl­edged with­in weeks of the 9/11 attacks, that sup­port for auto­crat­ic regimes that squashed all expres­sions of dis­sent, had cre­at­ed the feed­ing ground for jihadist groups focused on strik­ing at West­ern tar­gets. It is a les­son that appears to have bypassed Russ­ian deci­sion and pol­i­cy mak­ers as they stub­born­ly sup­port a Syr­i­an regime whose down­fall is no longer a ques­tion of if but when.

Russ­ian sus­pi­cions of West­ern sanc­tions against Syr­ia and non-mil­i­tary sup­port for the rebels may not be total­ly unfound­ed, but Moscow has done lit­tle to give sub­stance to its calls for an end to the fight­ing and a polit­i­cal solu­tion that would incor­po­rate ele­ments of the Assad regime. In fail­ing to do so, it has allowed the sit­u­a­tion in Syr­ia to go beyond the point of no return and risks pay­ing a heavy price in the longer term. As a result, the lessons of 9/11 could yet come to haunt Moscow.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.