Could Russia Be Right About Syria?

What Russia is saying about Syria may be self-serving and amoral, but fundamentally true: that Syria was no more oppressive than Bahrain, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, writes Vadim Nikitin
Middle East Online
First Published: 2012-08-06

Unpalatable as it may be, and coming from as unsavoury a character as Putin, it’s time to face the truth about Syria: that Assad might be the last remaining obstacle to war in the Middle East. No-one likes to see the Russian strongman be right about something. But when a botox-ed, authoritarian KGB veteran starts to look like the biggest dove in the room, it’s time for the West to seriously reconsider its stance on Damascus.

The ugliness of the messenger should not detract from the truth of the message. And what Russia is saying about Syria may be self-serving and amoral, but fundamentally true: that Syria was no more oppressive than Bahrain, Jordan or Saudi Arabia; that the increased instability and sectarian violence unleashed by removing Assad would outweigh any potential gains from overthrowing a dictator; that the incoherent, volatile ranks of the rebels teem with al-Qaeda militants who will not easily put down their arms; and most importantly, that hawks in the United States and Israel consider regime change in Damascus to be a mere prelude to the real showdown — with Iran.

On moral grounds, Russia’s case for non-intervention is no weaker than the West’s case for regime change; on pragmatic grounds, it is far stronger.

The standard argument directed at critics of regime change usually goes like this: Arbitrarily removing a dictator we don’t like while remaining good friends with equally nasty dictators elsewhere is justified because it still removes a dictator.

Unfortunately, Russia knows better than most about the long-term costs of such selective application of justice. Remember Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former billionaire now reduced to penning liberal manifestos from his jail cell? The fact that the oligarch was patently guilty of having helped plunder the country in the 90s did not disguise the self-interested and arbitrary way that he was singled out by Putin in 2003. At the time, those who recognised the incoherence of arresting one gangster capitalist while tolerating others no less venal, tainted or complicit (Abramovich springs to mind) felt that having even one fewer oligarch — through show-trial or not — would on balance be an improvement. The end would justify the means. Except it never really has.

In their fixation with bringing down Assad (but not his bloodthirsty neighbouring dictators in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait etc), the United States and its allies are just channeling Putin’s crusade against Khodorkvsky. Predictably, pursuing such a path will result in the internationalisation of Russian domestic politics: the export of a brutal, arbitrary, corrupt and precarious regime based on the unchallengeable whim of a single Leviathan. And just as Putin’s Russia ended up more corrupt than the one he set out to reform, so the new, ‘post-dictatorial’ Middle East may end up more violent and intolerant than it ever was under the old guard.

On pragmatic grounds, the case for regime change becomes shakier still. Here too, Russia’s recent history presents a useful addendum to the Afghanistan lesson that the United States ought to have learnt 30 years ago: Don’t play with Islamist fire. Russia learned this the hard way when, in 1992, president Yeltsin armed scores of Chechen fighters to pry separatist Abkhazia from Georgia in order to give Russia some short-term leverage in the region. Less than two years later, these very same battle-hardened veterans would turn on their erstwhile sponsor and become the protagonists of Moscow’s most tragic and violent policy blunders — the Chechen war.

Finally, Russia’s experience in the Cold War showed that it’s far better to make regimes change than to make regime-change. Also, that a multilateral diplomatic consensus is a necessary ingredient in any successful democratic transition. After all, what’s the difference between Poland and Yugoslavia, South Africa and Angola? Poland and South Africa transitioned to democracy only once their regimes were pressured and bribed into initiating democratic reforms themselves. Today, these countries are thriving and stable. But in neighbouring Yugoslavia and Angola, where big powers attempted to violently replace regimes they didn’t like by crudely taking sides in civil wars, years of bloodshed have still not delivered full democracy and stability.

The hard truth is that, whether it’s Vietnam in the 90s, Libya in 2003-2011, Burma today or Russia itself a mere 20 years ago, whenever the West holds its nose, swallows its pride, and peacefully cajoles autocratic old rogues to gradually step out of the cold, everybody wins. How many Iraqs will it take for the United States to learn this lesson?

Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly clear that ensuring democracy and stability is not the ultimate purpose of removing Assad. If those were really the goals, then all the United States would have had to do was to bribe him into reform. Everyone knows that unlike his father, Assad, who believes in nothing, cares more about online shopping than Arab nationalism. He would have sold out at the drop of a hat, keeping his arms contracts with Moscow while opening up to US corporations and property developers — surely the best of all possible worlds. But even Assad would not have agreed to abet or allow any attack on Iran from Israel or its Western allies. Perhaps that was his real crime in the eyes of the ‘international community’. Yet the big irony is that an inconvenient Syria has actually been good for Israel, by encouraging prudence and discouraging dangerous over-reach. With Assad removed, an emboldened, unencumbered Tel Aviv might fool itself into biting off more than even it can chew.

If propping up a minor despot is the price of preventing or discouraging such a war, then it is small change compared to the unimaginable human and geopolitical costs of the alternative.

Vadim Nikitin is a journalist and Russia analyst.

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