Russia has announced the signing of yet another contract with Syria – this time for the delivery of Yak-130 training aircraft. The move caused an uproar in the West and the Arab world against the backdrop of mounting political tensions around Damascus. Apparently Moscow is guided in this deal exclusively by commercial interests. At a recent news conference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a markedly negative reaction to the question of military-technical cooperation. He said Russia is not violating any sanctions and there is nothing to discuss.
Making deals with the Bashar al-Assad regime is a kind of lottery. If the government does not hold out, the contract will go down the drain because the new rulers that step in will not pick up where they left off. If the regime survives, there is an opportunity to profit. This position is cynical but there are no idealists in the Middle East – everyone pursues their own interests, which are entirely different from what they declare.
The interests of the military-industrial complex are an important factor, albeit not the determining one in Russian foreign policy. Its top managers have been critical of the Kremlin’s actions in the last few years. During the reset policy in 2010, Russia agreed to sanctions against Iran, which resulted in the contract on the delivery of S-300 missile systems being repealed. In 2011, Moscow abstained from a vote on the resolution on Libya. The Muammar Gaddafi regime was ousted and a number of deals, including military-technical contracts, fell through. If Russia does not defend its interests in Syria, this would mean that Moscow does not have a position of its own. Its position would be determined by the political circumstances dependent on the West. The military-industrial complex employs many people and the authorities are not interested in getting on their bad side, especially on the eve of the election campaign. Moreover, the image of a country that easily abandons its commitments under pressure from political circumstances is not good for its commercial reputation, and the Russian defense sector has respectable clients in addition to its problematic partners.
There are two dimensions to the Syrian collision: domestic and regional. The cause of the protests is clear. The minority that has ruled the majority for a long time is doomed to be challenged from below sooner or later. The wave that has swept through neighboring countries has become a catalyst of the discontent that was brewing in Syrian society. The system that was built during 40 years of rule by the al-Assad clan cannot remain intact indefinitely.
The regional aspect is linked with the general change in the geopolitical situation that is taking place along with the development of the Arab Spring. The region’s Saudi-led Sunni monarchies have seen it as a chance to take revenge for the events in the first half of the 2000s. At that time, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the take-down of Saddam Hussein led to a sharp growth in the influence of Iran and the Shiites. Damascus is a major ally of Tehran and the removal of the Alawi (which is close to Shiite) regime would mean a major victory for Riyadh and its allies.
The experience of the 2000s has taught the great powers (primarily the United States) that they can damage their reputation and sustain military and political losses by ignoring the UN Security Council. The Libyan operation was carried out in full conformity with the procedure thanks to the position of Russia and China, who did not use their right of veto. As a result, a formally legitimate action was filled with different content and led to regime change – ostensibly in accordance with the will of the Security Council.
The Libyan campaign consisted of three aspects that make it a model campaign. First, the resolution on Libya was extremely vague and very unusual for seasoned UN lawyers. It is clear now that this was done deliberately. Second, the initiative was launched by the Arab League – a profile regional organization. When all neighbors demand urgent measures, it is difficult for the rest to object. Third, the main burden of the NATO-led campaign was carried by individual countries with markedly strong interests.
There is a clear striving in the Syrian case to reproduce the same pattern, but the circumstances are different. First, a group of countries has expressed its discontent with vague formulas, according to Lavrov, and Moscow is backed by other BRICS countries. Second, the Arab League is not as united as it was in the case of Gaddafi. Third, if it comes to strikes against Syria, they will have to be mounted by the region’s states. The United States and Europe will provide moral and material support but are not going to intervene.
The Emir of Qatar has already called for Arab troops to enter Syria, while Turkey is discussing scenarios of establishing “buffer zones,” that is, of invading neighboring territory. Ankara has NATO’s second strongest army and the time is ripe for generals to conduct a major operation now that the Recep Erdogan government has been trying to oust them from the political scene for quite a while.
Lavrov has recently voiced Russia’s view on Syria. “If they decide to use force at any cost, and we are already hearing calls to bring some Arab troops into Syria, we will hardly be able to prevent this. But let this happen at their own initiative and let it rest on their conscience. They will not receive any authorization from the UN Security Council.” In other words, Russia is not all-powerful and is not going to die for the interests of others, but neither will it facilitate the unleashing of war.
This is Moscow’s current approach to the Middle East. It may sound vague, but that's only until the next upheavals in the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.