Note January 2016: I would no longer say that the war in Syria was sui generis. I think it’s clear that, whatever combustible material may have been lying around, Washington had a lot of involvement in starting the fire.
The revolt in Syria, now in its eighteenth month, was not caused by Washington or by Moscow. It is sui generis: specifically it is the consequence of circumstances peculiar to Syria; in general, it is another of the several revolts in the “Arab World”.
But some of the commentary in Western circles – especially, but not exclusively, in the USA – is making it sound like a Manichean battlefield of a new Cold War. Perhaps the epitome of this view is John Bolton’s assertion that “Assad remains in power because of Russia and Iran, with China supporting him in the background.” This is nonsense: Assad remains in power because people in Syria are prepared to fight for him. Naturally, the longer the fight goes on, the more outsiders are attracted: recently the government of Iraq claimed that jihadist fighters were leaving there for Syria and it is quite believable that Teheran is involved as well. But this has nothing to do with Moscow or Beijing. Bolton, perhaps to be given an important position should Romney be elected, goes on to advise what should be done; true to his assumption that Moscow is Assad’s prop, he calls for missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, withdrawal from START etc etc (No suggestions of how to pressure China. Interestingly.) As to Syria itself, he suggests Washington should “find Syrian rebel leaders who are truly secular and who oppose radical Islam”. Given that “war is deceit”, he may be disappointed in his search. But in truth, Bolton’s piece, like many others from the US right, is not really about Syria or Russia, it is an attack on President Obama: “Obama is not up to the job in Syria.” Indeed, many of the pieces that argue that Moscow is to blame are actually attacks on Obama’s alleged weakness or incapacity. “The Security Council’s moral authority is nil with Russia and China in permanent seats” is followed by “shame on Obama”. This throwaway line “Russia’s belligerent support of a murderous Syrian dictator” is from a excoriation of Obama’s activities, root and branch. Russia is just another boot to throw at him. Not everyone in the US conservative camp is so enthusiastic: this speaks of “strategy creep”, this of the unintended consequences of the Libya intervention, this of past failures and confusions. But many of the strongest calls for intervention, and the strongest kicks at Moscow, come from this side of the argument.
But others, more in the “humanitarian intervention” camp, also see the route to Damascus as running through Moscow: “Many major players in the Syrian crisis consider the peace plan that reached its deadline Thursday as the final speed bump in figuring out how to get Russia to accept enough pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to stop the violence”. The Canadian Foreign Minister believes “Russia is enabling this regime to soldier on”. French President Hollande implies Russia is “protecting” Assad. US Secretary of State Clinton says Russia’s “policy is going to help contribute to a civil war”. We are solemnly informed that “Russia has put itself on the wrong side of the argument.” Accusations come and go: Russia is supplying Syria with attack helicopters one moment; the next they are already in Syrian stocks. Russian warships sail for Syria, but arrive somewhere else. Massacres change their stories. All this assumes, against any reasonable or factual probability, that Moscow controls or has a decisive influence on Assad’s actions. But Assad is fighting for his very existence. He already has all the weapons he needs. And many Syrians, who fear a jihadist-dominated result (something the Boltons and “humanitarians” seem quite unconcerned about) support him too.
Moscow’s alleged support of Assad’s regime is said to hinge on two vital interests: its “naval base” at Tartus and its desire to preserve arms sales to Syria. But, generally, these motives are asserted without much effort spent looking at either one.
Let us consider the first. While Tartus (or Tartous) is Syria’s largest commercial port, by world standards it is rather small. According to the World Port Source, in 2008 it handled 12.9 million tons of cargo, mostly imports, and occupies a mere 300 hectares. By contrast, Rotterdam, Europe’s largest, and number 4 in the world, handled more than 400 million tons in 2008 and is over 10,000 hectares in area. The Russians have a lease on a corner of this small port and examination on Google Earth does not show anything very military. According to a Russian military thinktank, its normal staff is a few dozen and it is little more than a place where Russian warships, after their long trip from the Baltic or Barents Seas, can obtain fresh food, water and fuel. Moscow has invested little in improving it. While there is no doubt some symbolic value to it, as a “naval base” it is rather insignificant. Paul Saunders has an informed discussion of it here.
As to weapons, we hear much, but few commentators attempt the few moments’ research to find out what. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and its Arms Transfers Database tracks arms transfers and is regarded to be as accurate as open sources get. If we go to its Trade Register page, we can find its record of transfers from Russia to Syria 1990-2011. In these two decades, Russia has supplied Syria with anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles; engines for tanks provided by Czechoslovakia and the USSR; 24 MiG 29 air superiority fighters and 2 MiG 31 interceptors were sold – some sources suggest that they were taken out of Russian Air Force stocks so how operable they are is a moot point. More recently 36 Yak 130 trainer/light ground attack aircraft were ordered but have not been delivered. The large majority of weapons in the Syrian arsenal are Soviet-supplied and therefore upwards of three decades old. Given the reports of army units changing sides, many of these weapons will be in rebels’ hands by now. In any case these weapons are not very useful in the kind of war going on in Syria. The missiles are best used against their appropriate targets, the twenty-year-old tank engines power thirty-year-old tanks. The aircraft – if they can still fly – could conceivably be converted to ground-attack roles. But, given that by all accounts the fighting is mostly individuals and small arms, these weapons are hardly key for Assad’s survival. The most useful would have been the Yak 130s but they have not been delivered and apparently won’t be. So the arms market motive is rather overblown – it’s not a very large contributor to Russia’s arms sales and the weapons themselves are hardly the essential thing that is keeping Assad in power (the reader is invited to compare sales with India to see what a truly significant Russian market looks like). I reiterate, pace Bolton and the rest of them, Assad is kept in power – so far – by the fact that people are ready to fight on his behalf. Russia’s so-called support (and China’s) have little influence on this reality. A UN resolution (unless it licences NATO intervention; or, vide Libya, is interpreted as doing so) will not change anything. Assad and his opponents are playing for greater stakes than “world opinion”; they know what happened to Saddam Hussein and to Kaddafi.
Russia’s official position, courtesy of Foreign Minister Lavrov, is here. It is much based on principle. All governments like to claim that their actions are firmly based on principle. But these principles are friable: Washington, for example, was very firm on the principle of inviolability of borders in the Georgian case in 2008 but not so much in Yugoslavia in 1999; Moscow firmly held the opposite position each time. Moscow was very supportive of the human rights of Ossetians but not so much about those of Kosovars; Washington, again, the opposite. Each was adept at manufacturing reasons why inviolable principles in the one case did not apply in the other. Interest trumps principle.
But Lavrov’s piece above has much on caution. And that is very much a Russian interest. Caution is often missing from the “humanitarian interventionists”. The blunt question that must be asked of those who cheered on, and participated in, NATO’s Libyan intervention is this: are the Libyans, and their neighbours, better off today? And, are they likely to be? Western media had nonstop coverage of Kaddafi’s overthrow but there has been rather less reporting on the consequences: gunmen, chaos, jihadists, spillover into Chad and Mali (not that the author of the last can resist a little Putin-bashing when it comes to Syria). But “we came, we saw, he died” and we move on to the next “success”. Moscow is fundamentally a cautious power today, committed to the status quo. If the UN can be by-passed, Russia as a P5 member loses status and influence. If a government in Country A can be overthrown, could Russia’s government be next? And what happens after the government is overthrown: who has to deal with the consequences? A rational discussion of Moscow’s motives may be found here. Some principle but mostly self-interest and a strong mistrust of the West’s motives predominate.
As to “humanitarian interventions”, Moscow is sceptical. They have seen the breathless coverage in Western circles of atrocities fade away afterwards: where are the mass graves and rape camps we heard so much of in Kosovo? Was Kaddafi really “bombing his own people”? (A note on sources, Dear Reader. Because Western media outlets move ever forward, ever forgetting, these uncomfortable reconsiderations only appear in fringe sources or – like this, or this – in the deep back pages; the front page is always reserved for the latest excitement). And, given that so many “humanitarian interventions” are lightly entered into and the downstream effects ignored, what is the result for stability – something Moscow prizes? Syria’s borders are rather artificial (another map drawn on the floor of Wilson’s study at Versailles), the Assads have kept order (brutally): who will replace them? The Boltons (“Syrian rebel leaders who are truly secular”) and the “humanitarians” (“Stop the killing”) either think they know or don’t care. But consequences happen and Malians suffer the results. And (frightening thought!) each “humanitarian intervention” obligates another. After their terrible history, one can understand that Russians would value stability and the status quo. What the Russians see, covered by the shabby mantle of “humanitarianism”, are overthrows of previously recognised governments justified by propaganda campaigns lightly based on reality with a flippant disregard of the consequences. At the end, no one is much better off and unpleasant realities are ignored. And then another campaign starts.
But I may be taking this all too seriously. Maybe something else is going on. Apart from the opportunity to bash Obama, there may be another motive for painting Russia as the obstacle. Previous “humanitarian interventions” proved to be rather more difficult than expected. The Somalia intervention convinced Osama bin Laden that “You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear”. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo lasted for nearly eighty days and at the end ground intervention was being contemplated. NATO’s actions in Libya lasted for even longer – over 200 days – and at the end involved much more effort than merely a “no-fly zone”. Syria would clearly be a tougher nut to crack. Perhaps Washington and NATO have no stomach for another “humanitarian intervention” and find it convenient to blame inaction on Russia. It’s an excuse.