Russia’s Interest in Syria is Not Assad

When trying to underscore the difficulty of predicting the Kremlin’s next steps, many Westerners like to cite Winston Churchill’s famous reference to Russia as “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Few however, recall the remainder of that 1939 adage: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Careful distilling of statements by Russian leaders and Russia’s strategic documents would reveal there are several important national interests of Russia at stake in Syria, including:

(1) Prevention of the complete failure of the Syrian state, which would turn it into a long-term haven for militant Islamists who have vowed to attack Russia and displayed practical interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

(2) Maintaining Russia’s military presence in Syria, including the naval facility at Tartus, to ensure, among other things, the permanent presence of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea, something that Russia’s new Maritime Doctrine explicitly calls for.

(3) Preserving access of Russian companies to Syria’s market to ensure that the country continues to buy Russian-made arms and machinery, ensuring at least some degree of diversification of Russia’s economy, which is largely driven by the oil and gas sectors.

(4) Ensuring that Russia’s reputation as a reliable protector of its allies (in the eyes of the latter) is not damaged by a forceful removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.

In addition to these national interests, members of Russia’s ruling elite have a collective vital interest in the (5) prevention of a forceful regime change or any kind of revolution, because they fear such events could become precedents for other countries, including Russia.

Bashar Al-Assad has served these interests rather well, but is he indispensable in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, as some of the commentary in the Western press claim? Not necessarily. In fact, time and again Russian diplomats have reportedly hinted that Russia might be prepared to let Assad go. This past July saw representatives of the Syrian National Coalition claiming to have discussed Assad's political fate with Russian officials for the first time. More recently, Russian diplomats have recently asserted in closed-door meetings with Western officials that they are not wedded to Assad's continuing as Syria's president, Foreign Policy reported in September. Also in September Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry's official spokeswoman, asserted that “We are not supporting Assad as a person.  We did not say that he is a good guy or that he is a great leader.”  

We all know, of course, that these private hints and public statements were then followed by Russia’s direct intervention on behalf of Assad on September 30th. But Russian officials continued to maintain that they are not necessarily wedded to the idea of keeping Assad in power even after sending warplanes to support him. When asked on October 17th whether Syria’s next government has to be headed by Assad, Russian premier Dmitry Medvedev replied “No, absolutely not. It's up to the Syrian people to decide who will be the head of Syria. By the way, Syria is a multiethnic, multi-faith and a fairly complex nation. It's up to the people to decide.” He was echoed by Putin’s powerful chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, who told TASS on October 19th that “one can try to negotiate an agreement with the moderate opposition and compromises would have to be mutual.”

These statements indicate that that Russian leaders believe that they can live with a Syria without Assad — as long as (1) his successor(s) is chosen through negotiations, in which Russia has a say, followed by elections rather than through use of force and (2) the new leadership honors Russia’s interests.  No matter how many times some commentators claim Putin is a poor strategist, the Russian leader is not so shortsighted as to not realize that the status quo ante cannot be restored.  No matter what gains Syrian armed forces may make on the ground with Russia’s air support, the Syrian state stands little chance of survival in its official borders if Assad stays in power. Alawites constitute less than 15% of the Syrian population and they cannot realistically impose their will on the Sunni majority, which would concede to nothing less of a coalition government for what might have to become a federated state.

Either there emerges a coalition government, in which all major religious and ethnic groups, including Alawites, Christian Kurds, but excluding radicals, are represented, or Syria may become completely overrun by formations affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which outnumber and outgun the moderate opposition. There’s also a possibility, of course, that the Assad forces will manage to cling on to parts of the so-called useful coastal part where industries and agriculture are concentrated. It might be that such a “smaller Syria” would serve Russia’s interests too, but can Russia really then live with the reality  of the rest of the Syrian lands being controlled by the likes of ISIS, which has recruited over 2,000 Russian nationals in its ranks and which claims to have a ‘province’ in Russia’s North Caucasus? I would imagine not.

A negotiated transition in Syria, in which Russia would play a role and which would lead to emergence of a coalition government, would also help to limit damage done to Russia’s reputation by air strikes in Syria in the eyes of Sunni leaders and general public. Specifically, it would reduce the number of those Sunnis who may become so aggrieved by some of the inevitable civilian casualties from Russian airstrikes that they would want to stage terrorist attacks against Russia.

While ISIS constitutes a greater threat to Russia than to the U.S. and its Western allies, the Western world is also far from being immune to the threat posed by this and other terrorist groups operating in Syria and Iraq, as I have pointed out in my recent testimony to the U.S. Congress. The Islamic State has drawn some 4,500 nationals from the West into its ranks, according to The New York Times. FBI Director James Comey has been quoted as saying earlier this year that ISIS poses the greatest danger to the U.S. homeland, noting this terrorist organization has formed a “chaotic spider web”  in the U.S.  According to Representative Michael McCaul, Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, the U.S. foiled over 60 terrorist attacks by “ISIS followers” in 2014 alone. ISIS has also been reported to have planned attacks in Europe and some of its followers, such as Amedy Coulibaly, have unfortunately succeeded in their plans.

As Thomas Graham and I noted in a recent article, neither the U.S. nor Russia can afford to tolerate the existence of a terrorist quasi-state in either Syria or Iraq, especially as ISIS is actively  recruiting and training nationals of their countries while also seeking weapons of mass destruction.

The agreements on Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program have demonstrated that Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart John Kerry and their colleagues can negotiate win-win solutions for their countries on issues of high importance for not only the  U.S. and Russia, but also the entire international community, despite initial skepticism. Perhaps, the upcoming meeting of U.S., Russian, Saudi and Jordanian senior officials to discuss what Kerry has described as "real and tangible options" for a political solution in Syria could become the first step toward achieving such a solution, as well as a step toward joining forces in battling the common threat that ISIS’ continued existence within and without Syria poses to the national security of the U.S. and Russia.

Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.