Why Do the Russians Back Syria?

Why do the Russians back Syria?
An offhanded statement by Secretary of State John Kerry has turned into a brilliant and unexpected diplomatic option embraced by the Russians, Assad’s main backer, to disarm Syria of chemical weapons.

Though President Obama pitched a military option in tandem to this diplomatic one from the East Room of the White House last night, to a war weary American public and a skeptical Congress, the diplomatic option, though the nuts and bolts of it are fuzzy, seems to be the one everyone at home and in the international community is leaning towards.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry will meet on Thursday to further discuss what is to be done with Syria. The Russians have rejected any use of force against the Assad regime, be it from the U.S. unilaterally or through the U.N. Syria is one of Russia’s allies. But why did Putin run with Kerry’s comment? And what do the Russians have to gain? Why does Putin back Assad?

The world’s second biggest arms dealer, right after the U.S., Russia exports military weapons to Syria (http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/03/25-reason-putin-supports-assad-hill). Though these sales aren’t financially significant, it’s a boost for the Russian military, a group who has a lot of power in the Kremlin. Further, Russia maintains a naval base in Syria (Ibid). Syria is the last outpost of the great former U.S.S.R., as Syrian and Soviet ties were established with Bashar’s dictator father, Hafez Assad who took over the country in a military coup. A great psychological blow would be dealt to the Kremlin if Syria spun out of the Russian orbit.

But a bigger reason, and one that may explain their interest in selling Assad weapons, Russia also fears the ghosts of the Chechen war rising up again, consuming their interests and possibly even threatening the Russian regime itself. The Kremlin fought a war against Islamic extremists in Chechnya from 1999-2009 (Ibid). Putin believes that were it not for winning against these Sunni fundamentalists, Russia would not exist as it does today, but instead would be a collection of rival, disparate groups fighting each other for supremacy (Ibid). From Chechnya, as Putin sees it, Islamic fundamentalists moved to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other Arab states destabilizing them (Ibid). Russia still has many Sunni extremists within its borders, not only in Chechnya but in the Volga region, the North Caucasus, even in Moscow and other major metropolitan areas (Ibid).

During the war in Chechnya, Putin declared in a speech in 1999 that he would pursue extremists everywhere, even the outhouse (Ibid). As a result, Chechen civilians died by the tens of thousands and their capital, Grozny, was reduced to rubble (Ibid). So not only is it a blow to the Kremlin and a setback to see Syria crowded into a corner. Not only is it a black eye to a resurgent Russia, one of the BRIC countries, who is seeing their economic growth increase at an impressive pace, as it is again becoming a player on the world stage. Not only does it make them look bad to be backing Assad, in the Arab world and globally. Not only all that, but Putin is afraid that much like Libya and the Afghanistan of yesteryear, Syria will become a haven for Sunni guerrillas that could, somewhere down the road, support or even join their Chechen brethren and reignite their violent opposition to Russian rule.

Written By: Philip Perry