Ever since I became interested in international politics at the tender age of fourteen I remember the official Soviet/Russian attitude to the Middle East summed up in one sentence: “Peoples of the region have to settle their problems between themselves and without outside interference.” Of course it was and to some extent still is just a cliché. In the days of the Cold War, if it was America supplying arms to Israel or Saudi Arabia, then the said interference was definitely bad. If it was the Soviet Union doing the same to Syria or Iraq, then this was no interference at all but “brotherly help.” Still the narrative remained.
So I was quite surprised by the Russian Foreign Ministry taking such a tough line when the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s membership. As far as I remember, this was for the first time that the League did this in such a grandiose fashion since the 1979 expulsion of Egypt over its signing the Camp David accords with Israel (a completely futile step as it turned out). But this time the League suspended Syria for reasons which it rarely listened to before: humanitarian ones. Actually the suggestion for President Bashar al-Assad to stop butchering his people with tanks was a modest one (he might have well continued doing this with all sorts of other arms). In reply, Damascus sent armor in to storm yet another opposition, a supporting neighborhood in the city of Homs. Then the Arabs acted and announced the suspension. Everything that happened after that was as predictable as a winter sandstorm in the desert, that is, completely predictable. Rented mobs of so-called Assad supporters started attacking Arab, Turkish and Western diplomatic missions in Syria.
But instead of hailing the Arab League’s step as a clear example of “peoples of the region settling their problems without outside interference,” official Moscow pronounced it a mistake. Pro-government pundits and state TV went even further, accusing the League of becoming a proxy for the West. At the same time, His Holiness Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, decided not to cancel a long-planned visit to Syria and even met with Bashar al-Assad: all smiles, gifts in hand. The Syrian state-censored media interpreted the visit as a sign of official support from Moscow. His Holiness knew this in advance that this no doubt would be the case, but preferred to go on with the trip.
Finally, a delegation of the opposition Syrian National Council came to Moscow and met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He told them “to open dialogue” with the government in Damascus. Council chairman Burhan Ghalioun told the minister there would be no dialogue with Assad as long as he continues to suppress the opposition with violent means and instead asked Lavrov to exert pressure on Assad (a highly unlikely scenario in the current circumstances).
Moscow’s intransigence is explained, in my opinion, by several factors. One is the one or two billion dollars of arms contracts that Moscow has signed with Damascus and doesn’t want to lose. Another is the desire to show influence in one of the very few places where Russian influence still exists in some form. But a third reason is probably more important: Russian leaders do not want to do anything that could be interpreted as support for “regime change.” This reflects the Kremlin’s preoccupation with Russia’s domestic scene, which becomes increasingly turbulent and unpredictable.
However, Moscow’s determination to stand by Assad flies in the face of everything that one should have learned after the war in Libya, as well as revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt: the age of “republican monarchies” established in the 1960s and 1970s is coming to a close. What comes next nobody knows and very probably each country will go its own way. But it is clear that the legitimacy of repressive dictatorships that ruled the region for so long is severely, if not fatally undermined. The Russian leadership inclines to believe that this is all the result of malicious foreign plots and outside incitement rather than incompetence, corruption and violence of the dictatorial regimes themselves. This refusal to admit that societies and political systems evolve is staggering. And it bodes badly for Russia, which increasingly finds itself on the losing side when it comes to foreign relations. This time it is relations with the majority of the Arab countries that take a hit. But it could be any other region any time as long as Moscow insists on keeping the status quo that is no longer there to keep.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.