Russia: Protecting expats and more in Syria

Syrians hold photos of Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin during a pro-government demonstration in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March 4, 2012. (Photo: Freedom House)

By Dr Nicholas Redman, Senior Fellow for Geopolitical Risk and Economic Security; Editor, Adelphi Books

Russia is preparing to send two warships plus marines to Syria, as the civil war in that country shows no sign of letting up.

Russia has for months supported the government of Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council, blocking resolutions authored by Western and Arab League states to sanction Damascus and pressure Assad to step down.

Most of Russia’s motivations for doing so are well known. Firstly, it is determined to ensure there is no Security Council cover for any external effort to topple a sovereign government, whether by military or other means. The principle of non-intervention is one that Moscow is desperate to defend. Secondly, the government of Vladimir Putin has no wish to see another president – in the Middle East or the former Soviet Union – ousted by the mob, for fear the virus could spread further. Thirdly, it fears the regional destabilisation that could accompany Assad’s downfall. And fourthly, Russia has commercial, diplomatic and military ties with the Assad government that would be in jeopardy if the opposition came to power. These interests include arms sales, use of the Tartous naval base, energy-sector investment opportunities and a close diplomatic alignment with Damascus.

The latest dispatch of naval vessels to Syria is on one level a further statement of support for the Assad government and the interests that Russia wishes to defend. So too is the delivery of reconditioned military helicopters to Syria. Yet sending ships and marines to the coast of Syria also points to an interest that sets Russia aside from all other permanent members of the UN Security Council – it has people on the ground. Rather a lot of people, in fact.

In the first instance, these are the Russian armed services personnel working in Tartous and supporting the use of Russian military equipment by the Syrian armed forces.

Secondly, there are perhaps 30,000 Russians who are married to Syrian citizens and are resident in the country. This is a consequence of decades of close relations between Soviet Russia and Syria under the current president’s father. In Moscow’s calculation, their best chance for a peaceful existence is for Assad to secure a victory over his opponents as quickly as possible. If the opposition were to win power, the nationals of a country which had backed Assad to the hilt, over many years, would face an uncertain future.

Thirdly, Syria is home to between 50,000 and 100,000 Circassians who originally hail from Russian lands around the Black Sea and the Caucasus. The Syrian Circassians were relocated to modern-day Syria in the second half of the nineteenth century, as tsarist Russia expanded. They are one of a number of Syrian minorities who support the Assad government, and most reside in and around Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. Most of those in Homs and the villages surrounding it are now refugees. As members of a community regarded as pro-Assad, they fear the Sunni opposition; yet because they are not part of Assad’s Alawite core, some parts of the Syrian security services also regard them with suspicion.

A few hundred Syrian Circassians have already emigrated to Russia but this trickle could become a stream if violence persists in Syria. Plenty of Circassians already live in Russia’s North Caucasus, in the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygea, and these are the most likely destination for the Syrian Circassians. Popular sympathy for their plight in those republics runs high, and this is not something that the federal government in Moscow can afford to ignore.

Yet if Russia threw open the door to the Syrian Circassians it would risk exacerbating instability in Kabardino-Balkaria and the other republics. Alongside that regional security problem, there would be a national political one. Putin would have to increase funding to the republics affected – but that would only exacerbate the ill feeling in the rest of Russia about the billions of dollars spent on Chechnya and its neighbours. ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ has been a rallying cry for nationalist opposition to Putin, and a rare issue on which the president is on the wrong side of working-class opinion.

The Circassian issue is also sensitive for Putin because it touches on one of his personal projects – the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The games will take place on land that was originally populated by Circassians, and diaspora groups – with the encouragement of the Georgian government – are hoping to use the Winter Olympics to draw attention towards the so-called ‘Circassian Genocide’. Helping the Syrian Circassians might win Moscow some points with the diaspora, but engagement would be risky too.

In light of all this, it is little wonder that Russia would prefer to see the Syrian opposition crushed and Assad continue to rule for many years to come. It has far more at stake than arms sales, a naval base and a desire to thumb its nose at the US.


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