After more than two years of a devastating conflict, the balance of power in Syria is gradually shifting in favor of the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Needless to say, this scenario seemed quite implausible at the beginning of the Damascus Spring and further into the civil war. Why the rebels failed to consolidate their efforts at ousting Assad is a critical question. One might reasonably argue that the unconcerted policies of Washington and Brussels toward Damascus fell woefully short of the desired expectations that the Assad regime would yield to foreign and internal pressure. But a more important question concerns the role which Russia played in this geopolitical game and the benefits that Russia will obtain should Vladimir Putin continue to augment Assad’s victories over the rebels.
The rebellion against the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria was patterned after the uprisings in other Arab states and began in March 2011, in Deraa. The idiosyncrasies of the Syrian regime, and especially its aggressive posture vis-à-vis the West, caused an outcome radically different from those of Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen. The Syrian strife followed a path akin to Libya’s, where Muammar Gaddafi declared a war against his people and was subsequently toppled as a result of a foreign intervention. In the case of Syria, however, such an intervention has so far appeared impossible.
As the violence in Syria escalated, a regional conflict morphed into an issue of international concern. Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and China offered support for the Assad regime. The so-called “Friends of Syria,” including Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States, took the side of the Syrian opposition. As a result of irrevocable differences among world powers, the Assad regime was allowed to continue its struggle for survival. It is no surprise, however, that the regime of Bashar al-Assad found support among Russia (particularly) and China.
Undoubtedly, Russia’s stance on Syria has been actuated by antagonism towards U.S. duplicitous foreign policy in the Middle East, its success in toppling Gaddafi, and its goals of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad who is seen as Russia’s last military ally in the Middle East. The Syrian rebellion has thus been perceived by Moscow and Beijing as another coup d’état orchestrated by the West and the petromonarchies. And inasmuch as the NATO operation in Libya overtly violated the UN agreements, taking advantage of their votes in the Security Council, Russia and China nixed the resolutions on Syria.
It could be argued that Russia’s efforts to forestall Western efforts at regime change in Damascus have been critical to Assad’s survival. Whether it is a matter of mere luck or a set of independent variables, we cannot yet ascertain. But given that the U.S., Turkey, and Israel sent their envoys to Moscow for talks on Syria, the most brutal phase of the conflict looks set to be drawing to a close. One of the lessons we should learn from this is that international politics is undergoing a transformation, and Russia certainly wants to be shaping the new world order on a par with China and some other nondemocratic regimes. In the end, if the regime of Bashar al-Assad wins, the nondemocratic world will have a reason to celebrate.