Russia’s unwavering support for Assad during Syria’s severely violent crisis has caused a strong condemnation of both Western public opinion and governments. The reasons for the Russian support are mostly thought to be assigned commercial and material interests. This is too simplistic. There is more at stake.
Many scholars and journalists ascribe the sense of Russian support towards Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad to commercial and material interests. These attained millions of dollars in arms sales and included Russia’s last-standing military base outside the former Soviet Union in Tartus, Syria. These frequently heard (neo-)realist or (neo-)liberal explanations of the Russian demeanor are likely to be accepted but are, however, illusionary.
Indeed, the possession of Tartus seems a fair reason. After all, Russia has little access to warm water ports. However, this specific port is only a logistical support harbor and similarly unimportant with not more than fifty seamen. The symbolic value is much higher than the practical national interest in material terms. So let’s forget about Tartus.
Moving on to the arms trade, which is another plausible cause for support since Syria is one of Moscow’s most frequent customers. Nevertheless, there is also more nuance in this specific aspect. Although one third of Syria’s weaponry import comes from Russia, this amount only accounts for five percent of Russia’s export according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST).Simply put, the Kremlin could easily sell the weapons to other countries than Syria and thus securing payment. Indeed, instability makes it more difficult for Assad’s government to pay for the weaponry.
One who digs deeper into the Russian’s motives behind the support encounters remarkable aspects that are shed by a different light.
Moscow’s Old Friend: Losing the Last Ally in the Middle East?
In the aftermath of World War II, Syria joined a pro-Soviet pact and has been an ally ever since. However, that friendship might not last so long anymore if Russia keeps on supporting Assad while a revolutionary group might topple Assad.
The ‘Syria-policy’ of the Kremlin can be described as a general agreement between elites who are afraid of the final disappearance of Soviet power in the Middle East. Moreover, there is a human legacy in this Cold War alliance: around 20,000 Russian women are married to a Syrian. “They are wives of the [Syrian] elite, who can have […] some soft influence,” said Ninan Sergeyeva, who led a Russian expatriates organization. That is to say, Russian foreign policy leaders are acting to foster the ‘emotional, historical, or ideological interests’ of their identity, says Foreign Policy blogger Daniel Drezner.
This could be seen as a consequence of the ’logic of appropriateness’, a social constructivist principle: a certain identity will give actors a peculiar role in international relations, and they will endeavor to behave in a way they see as appropriate to that role. The Russian perceived identity as ‘world power’ influences the Kremlin’s policy making.
One could argue that both Russia and the world still look upon Russia as being a world power
when the Russian UN-delegate vetoed a resolution on Syria, no one was surprised. This nostalgia is intertwined with a traditional vision on international law by the world largest state: the principle of non-interference.
No Cracks in Sight for the Principle of Non-Interference
The principle of non-interference implies that a state should not interfere in the internal issues of another state, and this is one of the traditional tenets in Russian thinking. The principle is based upon state sovereignty and self-determination. Russia tries to prevent establishing norms that would allow for any international intervention.
Russia perceives such norms as a ‘regime change’ and has seen many allied regimes being replaced after the end of the Cold War. Besides, when Russia would allow interference in another state’s internal conflicts, they would hurt their own internal stability. Just as China, Russia has several separatist movements within its border.
Trouble in the Northern Caucasus: An Islamist Insurgency Spillover?
The Northern Caucasus became Russian territory during the 18th century when the Russians invaded the region and expelled a substantial amount of Caucasians southwards, into the Middle East. Ever since, the region has been troubled by conflicts, of which Dagestan and Chechnya are the most notable.
First of all, the struggle of Assad against rebel forces is for Putin a reminiscence of his war against the Chechen rebels. In an interview referring to the bloody civil war (1999- 2009), the Russian president is confident of his counter-rebellion: “If we did not quickly do something to stop it, Russia as a state in its current form would cease to exist.”
Besides that, Russian Middle East-experts parallel Syria to Dagestan, another Russian republic, which is a ‘patchwork of competing tribes, religions ethnicities and loyalties.’ The Russian government is afraid of the Shariat Jamaat, a militant Islamist organization that is responsible for most of the violence in the Northern Caucasus.
A possible removal of secular Assad by Islamists could lighten the conflict-torn Caucasus.. Russian policy makers are cited saying that the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate was directly supported by the ones that are now trying to topple Assad.
But Islam is not the only religion that plays a role in the ongoing Russian support for Syria.
The ‘Holy War’ of the Russian Orthodox Church
While the concerns of Syrian Islamists fighting a jihad (literally ‘struggle’ but often translated as ‘Holy War’) in Syria are rising, another strand of religion seems to be a surprising player on the field.
During his presidential election campaign in 2012, Vladimir Putin was looking for support of Russia’s biggest religious institution: the Russian Orthodox Church. He promised funds for religious education and to reconstruct old churches.
Nevertheless, the Church was not interested in money, but asked for the safeguard the Christian minorities in the Middle East. Putin’s answer left no room for reluctance: “So it will be.” This instance displays that the religious institution has a noteworthy influence on Russian foreign policy. For example, the Church meets on regular basis with the Russian Foreign Ministry to talk about its agenda outside the borders of Russia.
Russian priests and theologians are ostensibly anxious for the fate of the Syrian Christians and the possible animosity towards them if Assad falls. When Syrian diplomats met with the Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill I, the religious leader expressed his fear that the ten percent of Syrian Christians will be ‘swept away by a wave of Islamic fundamentalism.’
The Power of Immaterial Affairs
Let’s summarize. Yes, Russia trades arms with Syria, but Syria can be substituted for any other state. Yes, Russia has a warm water port in Syria, but this is rather a wharf than a harbor of any significance. What does that leave us? Well, a lot of immaterial affairs.
First of all, Russia’s perceived identity as a world power is a significant factor in the overall image of its role in the Syrian conflict. Secondly, the goal to avert the construction of a principle that allows for international intervention in times of oppression is also significant. Thirdly, the Russian Orthodox Church is involved directly in foreign affairs’. Fourthly, the Kremlin fears that Syria will become an Islamist state that will support likeminded extremists in its own backyard, namely Chechnya and Dagestan.
If they have such an influence on Russia’s foreign policy, one should turn the question around and ask: to what extent do immaterial affairs influence the West’s support for the Syrian opposition?