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The Role of Russia in the Syrian Conflict

An Overview

The Arab Spring in Syria started on 15th March, 2011. Peaceful protesters poured out to the streets in the Syrian capital city, Damascus. They were demanding for freedom, democratic reforms, and an end to corruption. When the government responded harshly, the protesters reacted by demanding for the overthrow of Assad. The turn of events heightened the tension and violence in the country. The escalation of violence led to an outbreak of the ongoing civil war. As the war intensified, it became a complex affair with the entrance of more actors from outside Syria. The actors are to be found on either side of the conflict. The presence of these forces makes the Syrian conflict a civil and an international war. The forces fighting the Assad regime are made up of various Islamic groups. They include Ahrar as-Sham, Jabat al-Nusra, and ISIS. There is also the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition. The war has also sucked in such countries as the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The countries that are supporting the Assad regime are Russia and Iran.

Methodology

The methodology adopted in this paper is based on the theories of international relations. It allows for the examination of the event from the perspective of different frameworks. The Syrian conflict will be analysed through the theories of realism and constructivism. Realism is regarded as the most effective approach in explaining intra-states conflicts, especially in the event where power calculations are central to the clash. The constructivist theory will be used to illuminate the elements at play in the intra-state conflict, including identities and ideologies.

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Realism and constructivism in the Syrian context

Realism is a complex tradition in political theories. It is often viewed as a framework comprising of several sub-schools of thoughts and theories (Barkin 2010). The realism perspective is hinged on three assumptions. It is assumed that nations are primarily the central actors in the international political environment. In addition, nation-states are viewed as unitary. Finally, it is assumed that the states are rational actors. Their actions are based on the interests they aspire to satisfy (Kegley 2007). In this regard, the international political system is viewed as anarchic in nature.

Constructivism theory

In contrast to the realism theory, constructivism emphasises more on identity and non-material factors. Such factors include values, norms, and ideas. They are used to explain how the interests of states come into being. The theory further seeks to explain why nation-states opt for a particular approach in the international political system (Kegley 2007). Realism contends that the interests are exogenous and largely depend on the immutable material factors, especially power. On its part, the constructivist perspective conversely argues that the interests are endogenous. They are also dynamic as they are constructed through social and societal interactions (Barkin 2010). The interests are also likely to change with shifts in social interactions.

Liberalism theory

The liberalism theory revolves around three principles. Liberalists reject power politics as the central outcome of international relations (Barkin 2010). The theory lays emphasis on mutual benefits and international corroboration. It also focuses on the incorporation of international organisations in shaping policy choices and preferences. According to this theory, international institutions have a significant role to play in the promotion of cooperation among nation-states. They also play an important role in the reduction of conflicts (Barkin 2010).

The Conflict Inside Syria

The Genesis of the Syrian Conflict

Since its independence from France in 1946, Syria has gone through periods of political instability. The increased Arab nationalism has led to various military coups. The coups led to the Syrian Corrective Revolution. The revolution took place in 1970 (Hashemi & Postel 2017). It brought in socialist Ba’ath Party and Hafez Al-Assad to power. Al-Assad is the father of the current embattled president of Syria. Arising from a revolutionary background, the president took full and direct control of the military and the emergent security instruments. The security apparatus had power over the public administration and the Ba’ath Party. The president fully controlled the military, the council of ministers, the parliament, the judiciary, the economy, the media, and even the trade unions (Khatib, Lefevre & Qureshi 2012). When Hafez Al-Assad died in 2000, Basher Al-Assad, his son, took over as the Syrian leader. In the initial stages of his presidency, Basher Al-Assad’s policies were viewed as progressive and liberal. However, it later became obvious that there was no change that was forthcoming (Khatib, Lefevre & Qureshi 2012). In 2011, the protests against the Assad regime erupted. The regime tried to suppress the protests with unusual violence, which was the beginning of the current civil war.

Origins, Structure, and Contemporary Dynamics of the Conflict

When Bashar Al-Assad assumed power in 2000, the country was hopeful that he will usher in a new era in Syria. The president started with the removal of several officials, who were the representatives of the previous regime’s darkest hours (Khatib, Lefevre & Qureshi 2012). However, suppression of civil rights and abuse of individual freedoms persisted. The new president asserted his authority and overcame the internal resistance that was mounted by those opposed to the changes he was introducing. The net effect was that he was able to withstand intense external pressure. He managed to accrue considerable foreign influence within the region (Lesch 2012). Within the region, he was viewed as a benevolent dictator who promoted change while maintaining national cohesion and unity. In spite of this, several factors immersed the regime into a civil war (Hashemi & Postel 2017).

The Al-Assad regime claimed that it was fighting sectarianism. However, in reality, it was using the colonial approach of divide and rule. The Sunni rural population was one of the main supporters of the Assad regime. The support started right from the ‘Corrective Movement’ to Al-Assad’s ascent to power and subsequent years (Lesch 2012). Consequently, many minority groups, such as the Alawites, the Druze, the Shiites, Christians, and the secular Sunnis, feared the possibility of the growth of hegemonic Sunni Islamist governance. In spite of the mistrust, the Assad regime was viewed as a lesser evil (Lesch 2012).

The state was experiencing some political undercurrents due to the economic issues that the country was experiencing. The issues included corruption, poor infrastructure, and the contentious perception that the Ba’ath regime was favouring the minority (Khatib, Lefevre & Qureshi 2012). In the meantime, the Allawite community engaged in some minor protests, which were violently repressed. The political landscape took a totally un-envisaged direction. The country erupted in civil conflict as some groups sought to revenge the loss of family members.

The Syrian-Russian Relationship since Independence

Political observers opine that the Middle East, and particularly Syria, is a major concern to the Russian foreign policy. A review of the recent events shows that Moscow’s policies with regards to the Arab Peninsula are crafted on the basis of economic, ideological, and geopolitical concerns. International political observers point out that Russia intensified its pursuit of the Middle East policies after the demise of the cold war (Kreutz 2006). New developments in the region, such as the Arab Uprising, have forced Russia to relook at its political calculation regarding the region. A discussion on the relationship between Syria and Russia is incomplete without an analysis of how the associations between the two states are shaped by the historical processes underpinned in the framework of unending quest for national interests and the networks that the countries have developed.

Syria attained its independence soon after the end of the Second World War. However, the country was unable to attain socio-political stability for several years (Kreutz 2006). Its political wellbeing was relatively calm during the years of the war. The situation took a dramatic turn starting from 1949 (Kreutz 2006). Between 1949 and 1953, the country witnessed three coups and a military dictatorship. The 1954 coup brought in the Baas Party into the country’s political life. It is at this stage that Russia, by then known as the USSR, established an interesting partnership with Syria, especially with the Baathist Party (Kreutz 2006).

The special relationship between the two nations started with a secret pact in 1956. The agreement was a prescription of the political and diplomatic support that Russia was to give to Syria internationally. It also underscored support in the building of the Syrian national army (Ismael & Ismael 2010). The 1950 non-aggression agreement further buttressed the Russian and Syrian relationship. As such, it can be argued that the two states share a long-standing close relationship. The conflicts in the Middle East have only made the relationship tighter (Ismael & Ismael 2010).

The Russian Relationship with Syria since 1971

Russia and Syria share a longstanding relationship in the contemporary fast-changing political arena. The two have shared a relationship since Syrian independence. However, the link was formally buttressed following the Syrian coup in 1971 (Kreutz 2006). The coup was perpetrated by Hafez al-Assad. The initial driver of the relationship was Assad’s need for allies who could supply the country with weapons. The relationship was reinforced when Russia lost Egypt as its main ally within the Middle East in 1976 (Dam 2011). It is argued that Syria was not essentially a proxy to the Soviet Union. The reason is that the two nations had various policy issues that they could not agree on. For instance, the two countries never agreed on the Palestine problem. Most importantly, they held differing opinions regarding the Iran-Iraq war. Syria was determined to maintain a non-alignment stance. The stand ensured that the country avoided embracing communism. On the contrary, it preferred to maintain its Baathist ideology (Dam 2011).

After Hafez Assad assumed power in 1971, an agreement was signed between the Soviet Union and Syria. The agreement allowed for the building of a military base at Tartus (Kreutz 2006). It increased the presence of Russia within the Middle East. The new relationship allowed thousands of young military personnel from Syria to undergo training in Russia. The training took place during the Al-Assad regime. In 1977, the long-standing and improved relations between the two countries marked its twenty-year of existence. It was called the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation (Schlumberger 2008). The agreements cemented the relationship between the two states. It guaranteed a regular presence of Russians on the Syrian soil. Hafez Al-Assad was succeeded by his son in 2000 (Sottimano & Selvik 2008). When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Russia, with the help of China, voted against the formal condemnation by the UN Security Council against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The regime was condemned for the violent attacks against the protesting civilians.

The Tartus Naval Base

The Tartus Naval Base was built during the Cold War. It was established under the authority of a 1971 agreement between Russia and Syria. The base remains the only Russian military facility within the gulf region. It is also the only military base that exists outside Russia (Ismael & Ismael 2010). After Russia wrote off $9.8 billion of the initial $ 13.4 billion debt that was incurred during the Soviet Union era, it became a significant arms supplier to Syria (Sottimano & Selvik 2008).

Russia and Syria have engaged in discussions regarding a new naval base that would increase the former’s presence and strength in the Mediterranean region. The discussion comes at a time when the Russian relationship with the western countries has deteriorated. The deterioration is brought about by the country’s intention to install a missile shield in Poland. It is also brought about by the escalating Crimean war (Gvosdev & Marsh 2013). Syria allowed Russia to convert the Tartus Base into an enlarged and permanent military base. Consequently, Russia has dredged the port to accommodate and increase access to larger naval vessels. The port has come to represent Russia’s geopolitical interests and strategy in Syria (Gvosdev & Marsh 2013). Critics argue that the military facility was a significant motivating factor for Russia to defend the Assad regime within the UN Security Council (Starr 2012).

A Historical Justification of the Russia-Syrian Relationship

The relationship between Russia and Syria is viewed as one that is characterised by collaboration during periods of political upheavals in Syria and regional conflicts within the larger Middle East region. Syria went through three coups between 1949 and 1953 (Gvosdev & Marsh 2013). The series of coups ended when the Baath Party took power in 1954. The Soviet Union took a keen interest on these developments in Syria. The Soviet Union decided to enter into an alliance with Syria. The alliance was enhanced when the Suez Crisis erupted in 1956 (Ismael & Ismael 2010). The crisis was characterised by the Tripartite Aggression that involved France, Britain, and Israel. Russia supported the Syrian government and a solid relationship was cemented (Starr 2012).

The two countries have shared cordial cultural interests. However, the relationships are forged through pragmatic considerations, which are mainly economic and military (Peel & Clover 2012). As such, it can be argued that due to the historical relationships between the two countries, Russia may be said to have a moral and political obligation to defend Syria’s interests. The interests can be summed up as the Syrian struggle against terrorism. The terrorism threat comes from ISIS and other groupings (Trombetta 2016). Syria is also struggling against the nation-states that are intent on overthrowing the Assad regime (Peel & Clover 2012). Supporters of the Syrian regime view the West intervention in the war as an attempt to create hegemony in the region. The outcome of the hegemony is more political instability within the Middle East region. What this means is that the Russian support comes as a way of preventing the western countries from imposing their political will on Syria in terms of selling arms, commerce, and regional control (Gvosdev & Marsh 2013). In contrast, the nations that are supporting Syria are interested in the promotion of the independent social, cultural, and economic interests of these nation-states. Their aim is to enhance a pragmatic international order across the globe.

The Russian position seems to suggest that the Assad regime is preferable compared to the instability within the Mediterranean and the Gulf regions (Shapiro 2016). The instability is creating fertile grounds for religious extremism and terrorist activities. As such, given the fact that Russia has experience dealing with fundamentalists, its concern can be viewed as legitimate. It is not a cover for wanton pursuit of economic interests (Gvosdev & Marsh 2013). Russia, under the leadership of Putin, has advanced the reasoning that it is pursuing a pragmatic and non-ideological policy as dictated by its national interests. To the country, the confrontational course taken by the Syrian conflict can be reversed through cooperation (Trombetta 2016). However, this can only be achieved if adequate benefits are offered as bargaining chips. In spite of this, it cannot be forgotten that Russia is pursuing a foreign policy that is intent on the establishment of a multi-polar system in the international world order (Gvosdev & Marsh 2013). The system is supposed to be anchored on values and norms. The pursuit for profits is only a means of achieving prestige and power.

Chapter Summary

An analysis of the longstanding and historical relationship between the two countries reveals that the Russian position has not changed as far as the Syrian conflict is concerned. In spite of the turn of events in Syria, as well as the diplomatic pressure and influence from the West, Russia has resisted foreign intervention aimed at imposing a regime change. In light of this, it can be argued that the major concern of this country surpasses the material interests cited by the critics. The main aim can be deduced as the forestalling of the western practice of supporting regime change. As such, Russia can effectively defend its reputation and position in the Middle East.

References

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Ismael, T & Ismael, J 2010, ‘The Syrian Arab Republic and the Lebanese Republic’, In T Ismael (ed), Government and politics of the contemporary Middle East: continuity and change, Routledge, London, pp. 258-279.

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Inter-State Strategic Competition and Security