Could it be that Russia has good reason for supporting Syrian leader Assad - good in both the practical and moral sense?
Preposterous, readers of the US press would respond. Russia has armed and defended a brutal dictator who has had no qualms about using his full arsenal, including chemical weapons, against rebels and civilians in a bloody conflict that has already claimed close to 100,000 lives. Why? According to those reports, because of Russia's arms sales to Syria, "billions ... for more than four decades"; its naval base at Tartus, Syria, the last outside the former Soviet Union; fear of losing its "last ally in the Middle East"; and its Cold War-reflex to counter the United States.
Those are hardly noble motives. But taken alone or together, those circumstances do not suffice to explain Russia's Syria policy. Its arms sales to Syria, for example, are a small portion of its global arms sales and not critical to the health of the Russian defense industry. The base at Tartus is a small technical support facility of little strategic value, capable of docking only a few small ships at a time. Similarly, while Syria might be an ally, it is not a major one. Like the Middle East as a whole, it lies low in Russia's foreign policy priorities, if the Russian Foreign Policy Concept released earlier this year is any guide. And Russia might be intent on countering what it sees as America's hegemonic designs, but that stance should not be dismissed as a Cold War-reflex. Many other countries share it.
What then is missing in this explanation of Russia's policy? Perhaps we should consider what Russian leaders themselves insist lies behind their policy, which they argue is one part defense of principle, one part pragmatic pursuit of national interest.
Moscow has been resolute in the defense of the principle of state sovereignty in the traditional Westphalian sense, of non-interference by outside powers in the internal affairs of another state, a principle it considers to be the foundation of world order and international law. Moscow might recognize R2P, the United Nations-endorsed "responsibility to protect," civilian populations from mass atrocities and to intervene if a state is incapable or unwilling to do that, a norm that limits sovereignty. But Russia insists that R2P can be invoked only by the UN Security Council, where it holds a veto, not by individual states, and it has been reluctant to sanction humanitarian intervention in practice.
Moreover, Moscow contends that the United States has routinely flouted sovereignty and abused "responsibility to protect" to advance its geopolitical goals, more often than not at Russia's expense. For example, in its view, the United States funded and trained local groups to contest elections and overthrow the anti-American, pro-Russian Yugoslav President Milosevic in 2000 to install pro-American, anti-Russian leaders in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. More relevant to the situation in Syria, Moscow charges that the United States presses for invocation of the "responsibility to protect" to overthrow regimes it does not like. Libya is Exhibit No. 1. Moscow insists the United States planned from the start to exceed the Security Council mandate to protect civilians to side with the rebels and overthrow Muammar Gaddafi - and lied about its intentions to persuade Moscow to abstain rather than veto UN action. Moscow has vowed to thwart a similar scenario in Syria and thereby defend the principle of sovereignty.
As for the pragmatic reason, Moscow focuses on the outcomes the turmoil has produced so far. It treats with derision American hopes for democratic breakthroughs. Across the region, the unrest has fueled sectarian violence. Where regimes have changed, radical Islamists have emerged as the victors. That was certainly the case in Tunisia and Egypt, where the Islamists won putatively democratic elections, although recent developments in Egypt may compel Moscow to change its talking points. Yemen has become a haven for radical Islamists and, as a result, a focal point of America's counterterrorist operations. And in Libya, radical Islamists - along with other militias - have prevented the consolidation of a central government, launched an assault on Mali, and attacked US facilities and persons leading to the death of four American officials in Benghazi last September. With that record, why would the United States assume that the outcome would be any different in Syria after Assad's overthrow, particularly given the deep sectarian divisions and the consensus that the most effective anti-Assad fighting force is the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra militias?
In Moscow's view, the advance of radical Islam only bolsters international terrorist groups and poses a special threat to Russia with a population 10 to 15 percent Muslim. Although the Western narrative highlighted anti-colonial uprisings, Moscow insists that it was fighting radical Islamic forces in its two Chechen wars in the past 20 years. It sees radical Islam - along with pervasive poverty and economic depression - as the prime factor behind the growing instability in its North Caucasus. It is concerned that a triumphant radical Islam in the Arab world will invigorate comparable forces and threaten fragile secular regimes in Central Asia, a region Moscow considers essential to its own security. And it fears that radical Islam is slowly penetrating into its key Muslim-dominated provinces, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which are rich in resources and sit astride the lines of communication between European Russia and Siberia and the Russian Far East.
Principle and pragmatism thus come together in Moscow's adamant refusal to sanction any UN Security Council action that the United States might construe as authorizing it to use force against Basher al Assad. This does not mean that Moscow is wedded to him. Rather, Moscow insists that his ouster - should it come to that - must be the result of a Syrian political process, in which all legitimate Syrian forces are represented. That is one reason Moscow supports an international conference, Geneva-2, to work out a framework for a political transition in Syria. Such an approach respects Syria's sovereignty and, Moscow is confident, will ensure that radical Islamists do not emerge from the current turmoil to dominate that country.
But do principle and pragmatism combine to produce a "good" policy? That is an open question, and certainly there is reason to doubt both Moscow's desire and capacity to help bring the Syrian conflict to an equitable end and the wisdom of trying to hold back the burgeoning forces of change in the Arab world, as Moscow is wont to do. But, at a minimum, Moscow's position is not irrational. Rather than demonizing Moscow as the primary enabler of the carnage, as Washington has done on numerous occasions, it would behoove Americans to treat Russia's position seriously, to provide reasoned counterarguments where we can, and to think through clearly what is at stake for the United States and the region. The result could only be better and more effective American policy.