It’s extraordinary how so much analysis is devoted to Syria, yet so little to the reasons Russia is there. Russia is in some ways the key to the catastrophe. Yes, the West could do more, but only Russia could put an end to the fighting without expense or risk. Russia could from one day to the next stop direct support of the Syrian régime and pressure Iran to do the same. Russia could drop its Security Council support for the régime, unleashing vastly increased Western pressure on Assad. Iran on its own would know Assad was a lost cause, and he would fall. All this would cost Russia not one penny, not one life. Given this is more like common knowledge than a secret, why doesn’t it attract more attention?
I submit it’s because Russia’s atrocious, unforgivable role in Syria has much to do with perfectly legitimate concerns about the West.
Why is Russia in Syria?
Since Russia’s motives for pretty much anything are shrouded in an absurd fog of propaganda redolent of the crudest 1950s fanaticism, let’s get some things out of the way. Yes, the Ukrainian rebels are essentially Russian proxies supported by Russian troops and equipment. Yes Russia or Russian proxies shot down a civilian airliner over the Ukraine – though not even most idiots have managed to argue that this was deliberate. Yes, Russia broke international law in annexing the Crimea. Yes, Russian elections in the Crimea and elsewhere are crooked or ‘unfree’. Yes, Ukrainian fascists don’t run the Ukraine. Yes, Russia has plenty of its own fascists* and supports neo-fascists in Europe. Yes, Russia lies a lot. Yes, Russia is homophobic, plutocratic, full or racists, corrupt and other bad things. Yes, Putin is short. Western leaders are generally taller and it’s possible to argue they’re a bit better, at least recently.
What’s unclear is why any of this should blind so many to the fact that Russia is in Syria for the same reason it is in the Ukraine. It really has been the target of Western encroachment, not to mention contempt, for decades. It really has had to put up with attacks on its interests that no sovereign state would find anything but ragingly unacceptable. Russians are quite correct in thinking that the West wants Russia at its mercy, just as in the good old days after the fall of communism.
What the prejudice against Russia fails to acknowledge is that Russian objectives are not only reactive and defensive, but quite limited. Putin is not an idiot. He never wanted to overrun Ukraine. Controlling it would have been an impossible nuisance at best, never mind the international aftermath. He wanted to secure a base he already had, in the Crimea, and if possible land access to that base. In Syria, he also wants to secure a base he already has, in Tartous.
Why all this about bases? It is again a matter of encirclement. According to The Pentagon, the US has 662 overseas bases in 38 foreign countries. How many does Russia have outside the former Soviet Union? That would be one. Tartous.
And there lies perhaps the only faint hope for a minimally acceptable end to the Syrian catastrophe. Russia is a great power with a huge nuclear arsenal. It will never be held accountable for its crimes, any more than any other nuclear power – any more than the US will pay for what it did in Southeast Asia, or Israel will pay for what it does to Palestinians. Russia’s criminal support for Assad will end when the world makes it worth Russia’s while to end it. What would that involve?
Tartous. Assad or the Syrian régime may once have been an asset to Russia, but it is now a liability. Once Syria gave at least the appearance of a serious military power, able at least to exert decisive influence in Lebanon. Supporting the régime also gave Russia, after Sadat’s rejection of a Soviet presence, some vestige of influence in the Arab world: here was an Arab nationalist state, a brave opponent of Israel, whose strength derived from Russian arms. Today, the notion of Assad as an Arab nationalist is a joke. The notion that he would ever challenge Israel is another. The idea that he could even continue to govern, or that the régime could endure, is at best wildly unattractive. Putin must know that Assad will never be forgiven atrocities that in state-sponsored cruelty match anything the world has seen and in extent exceed perhaps anything since the Rwandan massacres. Putin also knows that his intervention brings his long-time support for Assad into the spotlight, and exposes him to undying hatred throughout the Arab and Sunni Muslim world. That is not too high a price to pay for the Russia’s sole strategic possession outside the ring of US bases. But of course Russia would be delighted to pay far less.
The example of Guantanamo shows that a major military base, particularly with convenient air and sea access, can easily survive in hostile territory. The US and NATO can make its survival a certainty. They can themselves recognize its ‘legitimate’ presence (even if its presence has no legitimacy). It can also agree that Russia may install and develop whatever it likes at the base, including facilities to accommodate the latest submarines and aircraft carriers. It can agree that Russian can install its most advanced, long-range air defenses, the S-400 system. It can accord Russia the right to deploy nuclear weapons. Shocking? Welcome to how Russia feels about US bases on its borders.
This would open the door to an end to the Syrian conflict. Russia would then have something much better than the régime, and much better than Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon. Indeed Russia would not greatly regret the decline of Iranian influence: its support for Iran has always been lukewarm, not least because it offends the Arab world. As for Syria itself, why would Russia care what happens there? Very likely, after the fall of Assad, an Islamist régime would emerge from the ashes of the Syrian conflict. This would be no serious threat to a greatly strengthened installation at Tartous.
Does this sound cynical? Not at all; it is a matter of ending horror. The fantasies of a liberal future for Syria, or one ruled by squeaky-clean pro-American groups, or bringing the Russian scoundrels to the International Court of Justice …these are self-indulgent daydreams that push an end to the conflict ever further away. And it is not a matter of what ‘the world’ ‘must demand’, as if there was such an entity in any position to demand anything. A part of the world, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States, might take steps toward the solution. The US, weak, feckless, and happy to be done with the Middle East, might go along. But this can happen only when it is understood that Russia, however evil its Syrian strategy, is beyond the reach of justice, yet far from beyond the reach of remedy.
(*) Though I’m not concerned to defend Russia against any accusations, it may be surprise some that Russia doesn’t always wink at neo-Nazism. For example, “When government finally decided to fight against fascists, they did a good job”. Or “Russia neo-Nazis jailed for life over 27 race murders.” Or “Leader of Russian neo-Nazi group sentenced to life.” Or “Russian Neo-Nazi Sentenced to Five Years In Penal Colony, But Not For Antigay Attacks”.