By Ed Hancox
It seems like the stage has been set yet again for another standoff between that international grouping commonly known as “the West” - as led by the United States - and Russia; this time over what to do in Syria. After the Kofi Annan-proposed peace plan between the Syrian government led by President Bashar Assad and the loose confederation of opposition groups was left in tatters and stark video evidence emerged apparently showing massacres of civilians (including many children) in places like Houla and others, international calls to do something in Syria have continued to grow louder.
Yet these calls are being largely resisted by newly-returned Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's tempting to view Putin's opposition simply as an expression of his desire to be contrarian, or to borrow an oft-used description of the American Vice-President: it's just Putin being Putin. But there is a rational behind Putin's actions that can be understood and helps to inform the worldview of the Russian government under Putin 2.0.
On one level Russian opposition to Western intervention in Syria is strategic. While not great fans of the Assad regime, Russian diplomats have warned about any action meant to suddenly dislodge it by pointing to the chaotic situation in Libya that followed the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi last year; why, they ask, is the West so eager to plunge another MENA nation into chaos? And given the disparate nature of the Syrian opposition, much like the Libyan opposition that was united only in its desire to get rid of Gadhafi, predicting that chaos will follow Assad isn't going out on much of a limb. But this talk obscures a geopolitical reality; that Syria hosts Russia's only naval facility outside of the former Soviet Union, a supply depot in the port city of Tartus.
Tartus had been almost forgotten in the years immediately following the end of the Soviet Union, but took on new importance when it appeared that the Russian Navy might lose the homeport for their Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, which after the end of the Soviet state inconveniently found itself located in neighboring Ukraine. Keeping the Black Sea Fleet in business was of primary strategic importance to the Russians, not only as a means to protect their southeastern coastline, but also for the ability it allowed for force projection into the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic. Tartus was mentioned as a possible replacement for Sevastopol and upgrades to the facilities were begun, but then Russia caught a break when pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich was elected president in Ukraine and a new decades-long lease was signed on Sevastopol. Even though this greatly diminished the importance of Tartus, the current Russian government (read Putin) doesn't want to lose this last link to the time when the Soviet Navy sailed the global seas; last week the Russian military even dispatched marines to protect the Russian facilities in Tartus. This is an indication of the descent into chaos the Russians expect if Assad falls, and is another reason why, geopolitically-speaking, Russia would prefer to throw their lot in with Assad.
Religion is another reason. An unlikely supporter of Assad is the Russian Orthodox Church, as reported by the New York Times several weeks ago. The Russian Orthodox Church is warning, in stark terms, that the end of the Assad regime would likely also be the end for Syria's ancient Orthodox Christian population. They point to the general exodus of Christians in the MENA region in recent years. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Christians enjoyed a larger degree of freedom to practice than in most parts of the Mid-East; following his ouster Christians turned into a persecuted minority during the sectarian wars that followed. Iraq's Christian population has diminished by two-thirds since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom. Egypt's Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10% of the population, have grown extremely wary about their future in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Officials from the Russian Orthodox Church site these facts as reasons for their concern over Syria. And according to a recent in-depth piece by the New York Review of Books, many of Syria's Christians are indeed worried about their future. While not fans of the oppressive Assad regime, some in Syria's Christian minority feel they have no option but to join in with the loyalist forces, since they fear that the Sunni Muslim-led government that would likely follow Assad would attempt to drive them out of the country – a chant at some opposition rallies suggests that Syrian Christians “go to Lebanon”, the only neighboring country that seems to have a stable Christian population. The Russian Orthodox Church wields a fair measure of influence over Putin and the Russian government, a result of Putin's close personal relationship with the head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill I and Putin's courting of the Church as part of his strategy to build a sense of Russian nationalism during the early days of his presidency.
Finally, Putin opposes Western intervention in Syria out of a sense of self-interest. Fear of Muslim-tinged nationalism, like that on display in some Syrian opposition rallies, dovetails with a latent unease in Russia towards their own Muslim minority, whose numbers are growing at a time when Russia's overall demographics are on a downward trend. There is a fear that a successful revolt in Syria could be fuel for Muslims in Russia's Caucasus region. While the best-known of these, Chechnya is relatively stable today, thanks to the Kremlin turning the republic over to brutal indigenous strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, the Islamic insurgency that began in Chechnya has spilled over to neighboring republics like Dagestan and Ingushetia with terrible results. A low-level insurgency has been underway for the past few years pitting shadowy Islamic groups against Russia's violent, but often also incompetent, security forces. Insurgency-related deaths are almost a daily occurrence, while calls by former President Dmitry Medvedev for development funds to fight the grinding poverty in the Caucasus have instead been met by only more brutal anti-insurgency tactics. In the back of his mind Putin may even worry that coming to the aid of the people of the Caucasus may be next in the plans of the West.
So while Vladimir Putin may be portrayed in the West as merely standing in the way of international efforts in Syria out of a reflexive need to stand up to the US-led international community, there is a rationale rooted in Russian domestic interests behind his actions.
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