Russian Interests in Syria

Moscow’s objections to a NATO-led intervention in the civil war in Syria stand on three legs: principled, practical and personal. I suspect Beijing shares at least some of them.

The principled objections – which are what we hear most about – have to do with Moscow’s belief that the United Nations, for all its imperfections, provides a degree of international order and that the international principles of non-interference in internal activities and the inviolability of borders are important guides for international behaviour. The weakness of the principled argument, of course, is that a nation’s loudly-proclaimed principles vary according to its perceived national interest in each case. For example, in NATO’s Kosovo intervention in 1999, Moscow was strong on the principle of inviolability of borders while NATO spoke endlessly about the humanitarian imperative; each piously claimed the moral high ground. In the Ossetia war in 2008, these positions were exactly reversed while each continued to parade the moral superiority of its new principles. Principled objections, therefore, are selected according to self-interest. States make the arguments, they should not be completely ignored, but they are usually window-dressing for more deeply-felt objections.

Moscow’s practical objections ought to be clear from a consideration of the West’s previous “humanitarian interventions”. No one today ever mentions Somalia (1992) or Haiti (1994); the first being an utter disaster (it convinced Bin Laden of the “extent of your [the USA’s] impotence and weaknesses”) and the second ineffective. As to Kosovo (1999) we never heard about the KLA and organ harvesting at the time nor much else today about the people NATO put into power. The less said about today’s chaos in Libya (2011) the better. In short, the conclusions are – or ought to be – that none of these four “humanitarian interventions” bettered either human rights or stability. Moscow prefers less uncertainty in the world rather than more: it is very much a status quo power at the moment and it would like to avoid the chaos that another NATO-led “humanitarian intervention” would leave behind it.

Moscow’s personal objections are equally easy to understand. NATO has now overthrown Serbian power in Kosovo and Gaddafi’s rule in Libya; who’s next to be destabilised or overthrown? Russians see NATO expansion, all the fuss about Putin-the-monster which is the common stock of Western commentary and the rest and wonder whether there is an attempt to create or push a “coloured revolution” in Russia. (Not that the ones in Ukraine, Georgia or the Kyrgyz Republic turned out so well, come to think of it). Too many Russians see the West’s use of the word “democracy” as a geopolitical code for distinguishing between allies and targets. Another consideration is that every time the UN is bypassed Russia, as a member of the P5, is also bypassed.

So these three easily understandable objections are at the root of Moscow’s attempts to block NATO-led attempts to intervene in Syria,

And, given that the intervention in Kosovo took three and a half months and the overthrow of Kaddafi’s ramshackle regime about eight months, and that each involved much more effort and involvement than was light-heartedly assumed at the beginning, it is clear that a NATO-led effort to overthrow Assad would take a great deal of time and effort.

Perhaps Washington and its willing allies are secretly relieved that they can blame Moscow for preventing them from “resolving” the situation.