What does Russia want?

151021-putin-assad-0344_fdbbda77824a15d3db705c6c7c3f3f0c-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000Back in September, Russia entered the Syrian civil war, bombing targets that had been threatening the Assad regime. Russia’s involvement in Syria is not altruistic—Russia is pursuing its interests. These are:

  • Continued control of naval facilities in Tartus (under regime control)
  • Enhancement of its reputation as reliable backer (cashing in on current regional perception of US as unreliable)
  • Opportunity for more trade deals (including arms sales, nuclear facility development)

Russia backing Assad is an outcome of these interests, not the other way round. If the West wants America to do ‘the right thing’ in Syria (by which we mean, ‘what we want’), we have to offer Putin outcomes that achieve his objectives, or make him realise he can’t achieve his objectives, and so settle for a compromise.

Nothing the West has done vis-à-vis Syria (or is considering doing) will fit either of these options.

The Russian facility at Tartus is Russia’s only warm-water port and considered vital to its interests. Although Russian security forces could keep the baddies out, should the regime collapse, this is no way to operate a port on an ongoing basis; Russia needs a stable regime in place to support the ongoing operation of this naval base. In theory, Russia could be assured it could retain the facilities in an orderly transfer of power. It would require some convincing to convince Russia of the merits of is approach, but it’s neither impossible nor the biggest obstacle to the West getting Russia to cooperate.

The biggest obstacle is Russia’s reputation. Russia has been a backer of Syria for decades. And, in recent years, Russia has been a friend in need, supplying arms and lines of credit and, when the chips were really down, its own soldiers and air force.

Whether or not it is deserved (it is), and whether or not it was avoidable (a vexed question), the US is currently seen by Middle Easterners as an unreliable backer. Russia knows this and is taking advantage of it.

It will not abandon Assad or his regime overnight because doing so would significantly damage Russia’s reputation.

The West also knows this, which is why it has begun dropping calls for Assad’s immediate resignation and started talking about a transition government. (This change of heart is also a consequence of the West realising it doesn’t have the will to do what is necessary to defeat Assad.)

Of course, if an internal plot would see the over-throw of Assad and his family, and the successors were both willing to work with Russia and negotiate with opposition elements, Russia would be OK with this.

Russia won’t likely agree to go into negotiations where the removal of Assad is a pre-condition, so the West should quietly drop these demands and start finding another way to remove him.

And as for increased sales, it’s a direct consequence of reputation and quality products, which Russia had.

But all of this is small fry. The West (read: America) needs to decide if it wants to allow Russia to increase its influence in the Middle East at the expense of the US. Does it have the will and/or capacity to prevent this? Does it have enough reliable and capable allies to achieve this?

The short answer is, its Middle East passivity will allow others to take advantage of a situation, and Russia is the strongest party doing so.