Cold War nostalgia
Syria looks like a scene straight out of the Cold War, and Russia is leading the re-enactment. Russia has lost touch with the political reality of the Arab world. In fact, it is rapidly becoming a pariah state in the context of the Arab revolutions. This is all the more evident with Russia’s decidedly disreputable dealings with Syria’s regime of Bashar al-Assad. That Russia wishes to protect Syria’s sovereignty in internal affairs is understandable, given the former’s interests in Syrian stability. However, I believe Russia is unconsciously trapping itself in a corner by misunderstanding its own national interests.
I do not believe Russia is trying to gain anything in supporting al-Assad, but rather preserve whatever Cold War vestiges it still has in Syria. Indeed, the current “West/Arab/UN vs. Russia” debate on how to approach the Syrian crisis can be practically mistaken for a Cold War incident.
Russia has a naval base at Tartus – its only base on the Mediterranean – and a considerable arms trade, agreeing to sell combat training aircraft to Syria, with a $550 million agreement last month alone. The Russo-Syrian alliance is nothing new. Even during the Cold War, the USSR largely equipped the Syrian army and the tradition continues to this day. Not to mention that Bashar’s father was also a key political ally of the Soviet Union and later Russia.
In addition to these outlined reciprocal Russo-Syrian interests, there also lies an inherent distrust in the Russian diplomatic psyche whenever the West (and apparently the Arab League in this case) is involved. This is especially true on questions of the internal affairs of a sovereign state, no matter its political character.
The world has become largely accustomed to the West’s ability for military intervention, either explicit or implicit. This is a foreign policy direction that Russia absolutely abhors, for in the case of the Arab revolution, such policy legitimizes the status of rebels and the overthrow of sovereign states and, most damning of all, it denounces aggressive repression methods as unacceptable. Western military intervention in Libya and overall U.N. disapproval of continued violent repressions are seen by Russia as dangerous precedents, considering its own history with internal strife and political struggles (one needs only think of Chechnya). Russia does not care which faction of an internal struggle is in the “right;” it only cares that such an internal struggle remains unobstructed without any form of foreign intervention.
This Russian policy is misguided, counter-productive and, most of all, hypocritical. Apparently, Russia still believes in its obsolete policy of needing to confront the world on any question regarding human rights and its inextricable link to national sovereignty. Has Russia been so disconnected this past year with the course of the Arab revolutions so as not to understand that the revolutionaries have virtually always been the victors? If Russia really hopes to keep a worthwhile ally in Syria, it should swallow its pride and allow history to follow its natural course and see that autocrats of the ancien régime are no longer acceptable to the Arab people.