Ghassan Dahhan
Last updated: 23 March, 2012

Analysis: Why Russia won’t let go of Assad

"Misrepresenting reality will not change Russia’s position; only a change in reality can achieve that", writes Ghassan Dahhan as he explores the nature of the Russian-Syrian relationship.

Several commentators have suggested that Russia’s support for Syria is bad for both countries’ interests. For instance, Middle East expert Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment contends that Syria’s regime is “doomed” and that in order for Russia to maintain its influence in the “new Syria” and beyond, it should immediately halt its political and military support to the Assad regime. In fact, by doing so Moscow would “earn the goodwill of the Syrian people” and become a “key player” in the “new Arab world”.

These arguments are often employed in an attempt to change Russia’s position vis-à-vis its longtime ally. The argument here, of course, is that Russia should switch horses now while it still can and that by doing so the former superpower could attain the status of a leader in the Arab region. According to this vision, abandoning Assad would only involve benefits, not costs, and moreover, without risks.

Although halting support to Assad is morally the right choice, it is easy to understand why Russia is reluctant to do so. The primary problem with the abovementioned argument lies in its assumption that Assad is “doomed” no matter what happens in Syria as well as its simplistic notion of international politics.

To start with the prospect of the Syrian regime: it yet remains to be seen whether it will collapse under the present circumstances. Even though Barack Obama called upon Assad to step aside in August 2011, and when most analysts (including myself) believed it would be just a matter of months before the Syrian regime would implode, the same leader is still firmly in charge of the country against all odds. In fact, contrary to Obama’s assessment, several U.S. intelligence officials recently disclosed to the media that in their judgment Assad could still hang on for years to come.

This grim reality also points out why Russia’s support for Assad is still not waning. The most important factor that determines Russia’s course of action regarding Syria is Assad’s handling of the crisis. As such, Russia’s support for Assad is directly tied to its assessment of the regime’s viability – the latter of which does not yet seem to strike Moscow as worrisome. Russia’s assessment that Assad is not yet “a dead man walking” is based on several factors.

First, there is the question of whether Assad’s inner circle is capable of maintaining its unity. It is clear that when this is not the case, the Syrian regime is finished. However, so far there have been surprisingly few high-level defections in Syria compared to Libya or Egypt for instance.  

Secondly, there is the issue of unity among the members of the vital elements of the repression apparatus and their performance, most notably Military Intelligence and the Fourth Armored Division. These institutions have until today managed to withstand the crisis with relatively little effort and deadly effect.

Third, Assad is still in control of the borders, especially those near Turkey and Jordan, thereby preventing the latter countries from gaining a foothold in Syria. The border towns of Homs, Idlib, Deraa and Deir Azzur are currently under control of the security forces, and there is little reason to believe that the poorly equipped Free Syrian Army could recapture these regions when faced against the superior forces of Assad.

Finally, there is the question of whether Assad is capable of controlling the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. If the populations of these cities were to revolt against the regime, the latter would lack the adequate means in suppressing them, as the military machine would become overheated. The potential threat stemming from these cities largely has to do with the respective size of the populations and the geographical proximity to the regime’s power base. Again, so far these cities are still under control – although this might change soon.

Of course there is also the question of Russian support. Assad cannot hold onto power without Russian support for longer than several months. The military aid is of vital importance to the regime, which relies almost completely on the military strategy in containing the unrest.

Yet Russia will only continue providing the regime with assistance for as long Assad manages to hold his regime firmly together, the military remains united and exerts control over the borders, and Damascus and Aleppo remain quiet. It seems inconceivable however that Russia would halt its support to Syria sooner than Assad loses his grip on any of the abovementioned factors, because such a decision would in itself precipitate the end of the Syrian regime. Until now, Russia is not yet convinced of the argument that the regime is doomed, and thus it will likely continue its support to Assad in line with the latter’s performance.

Nevertheless, let us examine the potential repercussions for Russia in case Assad was to fall. What exactly does Russia stand to lose when Assad is gone? First, Syria is currently the only country granting Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea through its naval base in the city of Tartus. If Assad falls, and the future Syrian regime would cancel its naval agreements with Moscow, then the latter would be well-advised to save itself the embarrassment and disband its already lousy naval fleet altogether – its base in Ukraine would be the last remaining naval stronghold outside Russia.

What is more important, however, if the Assad government indeed collapsed Russia would lose its oldest and last remaining ally in the Arab world, a region that is largely dominated by the United States. As such, it would significantly hamper Russia’s ability to counterbalance American hegemony in the region.

That Russia could become a leader in the region by abandoning its only Arab ally strikes me as odd, if only because Russia is not perceived anywhere as such, not even in its own European backyard. Russia would certainly not attain the status of key player in the “new Arab world”, nor is it likely that Syrians would suddenly start dancing on Moscow’s tune if it were to dump Assad tomorrow. The Syrian perception of Russia would be indifferent at best, and unfriendly at worst, but certainly not grateful.

The argument that Assad’s fall is imminent no matter what happens in Syria will not dissuade Russia from continuing its support for the Syrian regime. Worse still, the often-heard predictions about the forthcoming end of Assad have only reinforced the West’s reluctance to act against the Syrian regime, thereby unwittingly bolstering Assad’s position. Misrepresenting reality will not change Russia’s position; only a change in reality can achieve that.