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Why Russia Supports Assad

Last weekend, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster chided Russia for its “sponsorship” of Bashar al-Assad’s “murderous regime,” which he said ordered the recent chemical-weapons strike in Syria. “This is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they’re doing,” McMaster offered [1].

If the United States’ intent is to influence Russia to support more Washington-friendly policies, our policymakers must recognize and understand Moscow’s core interests—as Russians see them. Lecturing Moscow as a parent scolds a disobedient child is not likely to succeed.

Russia is not supporting the Syrian regime with considerable military power because they like Assad or his despicable policies.

Their objective is to enhance their ability to exert influence in the region, stabilize areas near their own borders that contain large Muslim populations, and ensure continued access to their Mediterranean port at Tartus.

Appealing to the moral high ground has no chance of influencing Putin.

According to the administration, the priority among American security objectives in the Middle East is the defeat of the Islamic State [2] (ISIS), which still has major holdings in the Iraqi and Syrian cities of Mosul and Raqqa. Washington doesn’t do itself any favors by mocking and deriding the world’s second-most-powerful military power, which, if engaged properly, has the ability to help with this primary security goal.

The U.S. response to the barbaric chemical strike has been, to date, marked by errors in judgment and evidence of inexperience operating in the international arena. In the 24 hours following the strike, President Trump was already claiming the Syrian regime [3] was directly responsible and began laying the groundwork for an attack. In an emergency UN Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted her UN colleagues [4], claiming that if the world body was unable to take action, “There are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”

Meanwhile, Deputy UN Ambassador for Russia Petr Illichev cautioned patience [5], calling for a delay in any talk of a retaliatory strike until an investigation had identified the guilty party. According to Al Jazeera, a draft UN resolution [6] called for “Syria to provide flight plans, flight logs, and other information on its military operations on the day of the assault … [as well as] the names of all commanders of helicopter squadrons to UN investigators and allow them to meet with generals and other high-ranking officials.”

Yet the Trump administration would not wait long enough to allow the UN time to weigh in on the matter, and likewise chose not to seek congressional authorization. Within 48 hours of the chemical attack, U.S. warships launched a cruise-missile strike [7] against a Syrian airfield. In so doing, the U.S. virtually gave the Russians the upper hand.

Following the U.S.-led attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to accuse [8] the U.S. of a “violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext.” On Tuesday, Putin said he still supports a UN-sponsored investigation into the allegations that the Assad regime ordered the attack. The Russian deputy ambassador and president both scored public-relations points by making statements that sound rational and proper. They did not defend Assad or deny he had ordered the attack, but rather urged the U.S. not to act too quickly and supported a full investigation to determine who was to blame.

Wednesday in Moscow, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met directly with Putin and reportedly advised the Russian president that he should recalculate the costs of remaining an ally of Syria. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was dismissive of Tillerson’s advice: “I believe everyone realized a long time ago that there is no use in giving us ultimatums. This is simply counterproductive,” she said [9].

The secretary of state and national-security advisor are both missing a key point: Russia is acting in ways consistent with how it sees its national-security interests in the region. Until senior U.S. leaders recognize this fact and order our own behavior accordingly, we can count on a continual worsening of relations with Russia and other competing powers.

In 1971 the USSR signed an agreement [10] with then-dictator Hafaz al-Assad for access to the Syrian naval base at Tartus [11], which is still in effect today. It is Russia’s only naval access to the Mediterranean, and they are not going to give it up. There is no rational basis upon which to expect Russia to renounce its support for Syria.

This is not to say that Assad should not be held accountable, but if the U.S. wants to check Assad’s behavior and convince Moscow to help, the U.S. must stop misunderstanding or ignoring the motivations that drive Russian policy in Syria.

Russia has an interest in seeing the civil war come to an end as much as we do. The Kremlin would like nothing better than to see the conflict resolved so their costly military support can be substantially reduced or eliminated. Their own threat from Islamic terrorism would be reduced if the civil war ended. It can be assumed, however, that Putin will not support any outcome that results in a Syrian government that is not friendly with Moscow.

The bottom line is that the United States must genuinely get out of the regime-change business— which never ends well—and focus instead on policies that have a realistic chance of attaining U.S. strategic objectives.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

35 Comments (Open | Close)

35 Comments To "Why Russia Supports Assad"

#1 Comment By john On April 13, 2017 @ 9:43 pm

On what basis can we appeal to the “moral high ground” ? Lets forgive us the sins of the past decade, the chaos we have created. What about the famine in Yemen we are presently aiding out Saudi allies in creating? What f#$$ moral high ground? I would like to be on that ground. We aren’t there and aren’t even interested in being there.

#2 Comment By Fred Bowman On April 13, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

Considering all the damaged the US and it’s allies (Saudia Arabia & Israel) has unleashed in the Middle East it the height of hypocrisy for the US to lecture Russia on anything.

#3 Comment By redfish On April 13, 2017 @ 11:05 pm

Their objective is to enhance their ability to exert influence in the region, stabilize areas near their own borders that contain large Muslim populations, and ensure continued access to their Mediterranean port at Tartus.

This is not to say that Assad should not be held accountable, but if the U.S. wants to check Assad’s behavior and convince Moscow to help, the U.S. must stop misunderstanding or ignoring the motivations that drive Russian policy in Syria.

And one of the lines coming out of Washington a lot lately has been that they can’t foresee a stable Syria under Assad, because there will be a lot of the population that can’t support him. It seems they do understand Russia’s interests of a stable Syria, they just don’t see Assad as getting in the way of those interests.

#4 Comment By redfish On April 13, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

*edit: I mean they do see him as getting in the way.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 13, 2017 @ 11:35 pm

It’s useless to invoke higher morality as what should guide the international behavior of others, when that’s not what informs your own.

#6 Comment By Cornel Lencar On April 14, 2017 @ 12:35 am

Why is the author so sure that Assad’s troops have used chemical weapons? A bit of restraint in this matter would be welcome.

#7 Comment By John S On April 14, 2017 @ 4:11 am

How do you propose to deal with ISIS? Russia and Syria both support the existence of ISIS as a lever to keep power.

#8 Comment By Дмитрий On April 14, 2017 @ 8:23 am

A country that for the sake of their interests created al-Qaeda and ISIL, a country that used chemical and nuclear weapons against civilians, dares to appeal to high moral values? Why almost every article in the American mainstream press, sounds like a mockery?

#9 Comment By SteveM On April 14, 2017 @ 8:38 am

I’m a non-interventionist and I don’t apologize for Assad. However, Yahoo news presented this link to a associated story:

Trump castigates Putin for backing ‘evil’ Assad”

When I read that, I think of the enthusiastic U.S. support of the Yemen pulverizing, jihadist supporting, slave-holding, head-chopping Saudis that the U.S. not only “backs”, but has also armed up with over $100 BILLION in weapons deals that it facilitated between the American Merchants of Death and the odious Saudi Princes.

And I ask myself about Trump’s condemnation of Putin, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

P.S. maybe if Ivanka had a gander at some of the pictures of the devastation and starvation in Yemen led by the Saudi regime, “Daddy’s Girl” could persuade him to broaden his perspective.

#10 Comment By collin On April 14, 2017 @ 9:43 am

For the non-interventionist US writers, let us not rationalize Russian aggression in Syria. It is wrong and aggressive while we should note that some ‘Russians’ probably knew of the chemical attack coming.

Also, we should note the Russians have been extremely unsuccessful in winning the Syrian Civil War as well. They been there two years and still Assad is fighting the war there. This is important because any outsider, be it the US or Russia, will not have success in Middle Eastern war politics.

#11 Comment By Dennis On April 14, 2017 @ 10:13 am

Be careful in assuming it is incontrovertible that Assad used sarin gas in the first place. There has been no proof on offer, and it is quite likely that this was in fact another false flag operation carried-out by ISIS, much like the Ghouta attack in 2013. Unlike Obama in 2013, Trump has taken the ISIS bait and done what they wanted, caused a huge rift in relations with Russia, and weakened Assad.

Trump recent actions have been a disgraceful 180-degree turn from his alleged non-interventionist foreign policy. We should be working with Russia, but instead the USA foreign policy establishment is hell-bent on more war, more mid-east intervention, and doing everything it can do upset Russia. And they have succeeded in co-opting Trump because of previous lies about Russian intervention in the election. To now “prove” he is no Russian tool, Trump in a fit of pique and bravado has now become a war-mongering interventionist tool of the establishment, launching bombs as his main foreign policy strategy.

#12 Comment By edding On April 14, 2017 @ 10:31 am

I’d suggest there is no moral high ground in the U.S. position. We initiated and have funded, armed, supplied and coordinated the war operations of the jihadists, and run
a propaganda war, and often without facts, to demonize Assad in order to fabricate ‘a moral high ground’. The latest effort has been the so-called intelligence report alleging Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikun, after the government’s own assets on the ground had reportedly disagreed with that assessment and supported the Russian and Syrian version. And only two days ago the Administration’s report that gave McMaster and Mattis and Tillerson ‘high confidence’ (whatever that means) was debunked by the esteemed Theodore Postol, the Pentagon’s go-to expert for years. So, why did we not get it right from the start?

McMaster blew it, Mattis blew it, Trump blew it, and now the latest one to fall on his keester has been Pompeo who locked himself into the lie yesterday.

And even if we take a step back, then, at the very least, these allegations require a full and independent forensic investigation by the OPCW and JIM at the UN- and not of the type the Brits and Americans would like to compromise.

#13 Comment By edding On April 14, 2017 @ 10:33 am

I would also offer as an alternative title: “Why Russia Supports Assad, and Why the U.S. should”.

#14 Comment By Peter On April 14, 2017 @ 10:40 am

There seems to be a certainty about Assad using the chemical weapons.
Considering the history of the area, one would have a few questions:
– were chemical weapons really used, or the story was staged? (Done and seen it before)
– why would Assad use the chemical weapons? The current military situation is more in his favor. Assad has an interest in increasing his credibility by not breaking his previous commitment of not using such weapons.
– could it be that – if chemical weapons were used – it was the other side using them and blame Assad? (Not uncommon). The “democratic opposition” has more to gain by creating and exposing a chemical attack.
Such concerns should be analyzed by president Trump and his advisors.
I voted for him: America First and stay out of more wars.
And I am disappointed…

#15 Comment By cka2nd On April 14, 2017 @ 10:54 am

John S says: “How do you propose to deal with ISIS? Russia and Syria both support the existence of ISIS as a lever to keep power.”

Don’t you mean the United States and Saudi Arabia?

#16 Comment By Pavel On April 14, 2017 @ 11:04 am

Quite reasonable article. It’s rare, professional journalism is not fashionable today, if it does not ignite the audience for emotions.

As for Russia’s position on Assad, no one civilized country will ever support the chemical crimes. And no one wants to be convicted without trial and evidence, is not it? It is a tradition already to forget the presumption of innocence.

#17 Comment By Joey On April 14, 2017 @ 11:32 am

Cui bono – Who Benefits? Assad benefits in no conceivable way in using chemical weapons. It is not about Assad being a “brutal dictator”. He simply stands in the way of America and Israel having more power and control in the region.

#18 Comment By David Smith On April 14, 2017 @ 12:12 pm

The technical term for this is The Pot Calling the Kettle Black. According to the twisted logic of the Empire, if we do it, it is good. If you do it, it is bad. Simple, isn’t it?

#19 Comment By Will Harrington On April 14, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

John S says:
April 14, 2017 at 4:11 am
How do you propose to deal with ISIS? Russia and Syria both support the existence of ISIS as a lever to keep power.

I reply:

What cool aid are you drinking? Assad is directly threatened by ISIS. They are occupying territory that used to be under his control. If they succeed, Assad is gone. Russia is not existentially threatened by ISIS, but they aren’t fond of the terrorism they suffer and they have absolutely no desire to see a fundamentalist Islamic Caliphate founded so near their south western frontier. They like their buffer states and ISIS could threaten those as well as support Chechen rebels. Your statements make absolutely no geopolitical sense at all.

#20 Comment By john On April 14, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

We are governed by madmen who have brought us into a situation where one miscalculation might bring on a nuclear war. The real strength of the United States was not in it,s weapons or its military;it was in its values. Now that successive presidents have made a hypocrisy of those ideals all we are left with are MOABs. But even that won’t be enough. An America in a state of perpetual war with Israel determining its foreign policy can never be great again

#21 Comment By Ken Hoop On April 14, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

Trump is supposed to be a brilliant business strategist.
He should have realized if he won he was going to be accused of Russophilia and have been prepared for it
with some other strategy than turning on Russia.
Notably, Trump has accused while campaigning, the US government of utilizing lies and related unethical tactics in foreign policy which leave it in an untenable position for any better claim on morality.
Thus one must believe that Trump is aware he is betraying his own campaign statements and is doing so for personal political gain which in no way correlates to the objectives he claimed were
vital American objectives in the foreign policy arena.
These facts are enough to make erstwhile Trumpists weigh various alliances against Trump so that the original objectives might be salvaged in the short or medium term.

#22 Comment By Bridger On April 14, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

Why does the author accept the premise that Assad probably used chemical weapons? We don’t know that until a full, impartial investigation has been conducted. But even if Assad did use chemical weapons it in no way affects our national interests unless human rights enforcement around the globe is now our job.

#23 Comment By John S On April 14, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

@Will Harrington
I think it’s pretty clear that Assad and Russia keep ISIS around to make the problem radically binary. A natural strategy. The Russians have gone so far as to abandon Palmyra, weapons and all, on two occasions–and ISIS suddenly found itself handsomely resupplied. If ISIS is your enemy, Russia and Assad are not your sincere allies.

#24 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 14, 2017 @ 5:37 pm

“it in no way affects our national interests unless human rights enforcement around the globe is now our job.”

If it were, there are quite a few places to withdraw from.

#25 Comment By Dr.Diprospan On April 15, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

I liked the article of Mr. Davis. A good analysis, a fair conclusion, but it’s still not entirely clear why Russia supports Assad and not the US with its allies? Perhaps the answer lies in the economic sphere. In fact, Russia’s opponent is not the West, but low labor productivity in Russia. Effective organization of labor, its high productivity is one of the main premises for the sustainable well-being of the country.
Russia is struggling with low labor productivity for a long time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the struggle against backwardness was fought with the help of European technologies. Even the tricolor flag was brought to Russia together with the first European ships from Holland. At the beginning of the 20th century, a grandiose attempt was made to overcome backwardness with the help of the ideas of European philosophers such as Karl Marx. In the mid-20th century, the Soviet Union copied the American principles of labor organization and worshiped Henry Ford. There was some progress, but not the one that was expected. Then in the late 20th century Russia decided to replace the economic system, but it did not help either. In early 2017, one of the most memorable statements by Vladimir Putin sounded roughly like this: if we can not significantly increase labor productivity in Russia in the coming years, then we are in for a lot of trouble. Indeed, labor productivity in Russia is 8-10 times lower than in the US.
On the one hand, Russia fears that Ukraine is preparing to become a transit area for the penetration of Western goods into Russia without proper customs duties.
This will lead to the ruin of Russian producers. On the other hand, Russia is afraid of gas rivals from Qatar, who want to control Syria’s territory for laying a pipeline to Europe and supplying cheap gas. Such competition with the Russian state-owned company Gazprom will lead to a significant reduction in revenues to the budget, a reduction in defense spending and social programs. Today I do not see fatal ideological contradictions between Russia and the United States. If the Russian elite hears the words of President Putin and will be able to raise labor productivity in Russia by at least 3-4 times, then maybe tomorrow Russia will support not Assad, but the US.

#26 Comment By Hexexis On April 15, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

“Lecturing Moscow as a parent scolds a disobedient child is not likely to succeed.”

U.S. lecturing everyone’s pretty much what’s passed for U.S. “forn. policy” these last several decades. Am. politicos, press convinced of their monopoly on the “high moral ground.” This does not change, regardless of adversary.

But short shrift given here to Russia’s, Syria’s ISIS, Islamist troubles; after all, 50 million mainly angry, mainly Sunni Muslims were unleashed when USSR fell. Jihadist bands (Kazhakstan, Uzbekistan) formed immediately; Saudi’s King Fahd sent millions of Koran to these newly liberated Muslims.

If indeed the objective is to “destroy ISIS,” why not link arms w/ Russia, Syria? Because we insist on our coalition of one, on that moral high ground: USA. “Stubborn” doesn’t begin to cover it.

#27 Comment By привет On April 15, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

to Bridger:
check this

#28 Comment By Philip Arlington On April 15, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

There is no rational basis for Russia to have a naval base in the Mediterranean. It is completely irrelevant to the wellbeing of the Russian people, which should be (but of course is not) the priority of the Russian state.

The U.S. and Russia should both leave the region. Neither is there for reasons which serve their own people. Their continuing mutually self-harming presence is perpetuated by status seeking by self-serving politicians and an inability to admit that longstanding policies were a mistake from the start as they were never in the national interest (correctly understood as meaning the interests of the public, not the leaders with whom they are burdened) in the first place.

#29 Comment By IceyFrance On April 15, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

Assad is “despicable” for fighting viciously to defend the sovereignty of his state and keep it unified.

Lincoln is widely acclaimed as the second or third greatest US president. He unleashed Grant and Sherman to fight viciously to defend the sovereignty of the united states and keep them unified.

#30 Comment By Iron Felix On April 15, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

Interview with President Assad.

#31 Comment By Ioannis Andris On April 16, 2017 @ 4:36 am

Moral high ground? Is this a joke? After invading or bombing countries on false pretexts, creating a mess on the whole region that (in)directly led to the appearance of ISIS we still have the audacity to preach about moral high ground?
To say nothing about the side we are supporting, the so called “rebels”, who only yesterday blew up 4 buses carrying civilians who were being evacuated from “rebel”-besieged cities to government controlled Aleppo, resulting in almost 120 being killed/burned alive.
The problem is the flawed notion of US exceptionalism, fuelling interventionism across the globe.

#32 Comment By Mike On April 16, 2017 @ 6:36 am

lol stopped reading when its implied that the US somehow is led by a “moral ground”,
Russia supports Assad just because there are terrorists in Syria. Period. Also because these groups could spill over into region and Russia itself. There you have the reason.

#33 Comment By Dick Cheney On April 17, 2017 @ 12:41 am

Uh, let’s not also forget that Putin made a deal with the Orthodox Patriarchs when he sought — and then attained — a legitimate re-election, with the Kremlin promising millions in church rebuilding in exchange for the clergy campaigning for Putin. The Orthodox clergy also sought — and rightfully attained — a promise that the Kremlin would protect Assad as he literally protected the largest Christian disapora in the muslim world. As did Iraq’s Saddam before the “christian” Bush destroyed that diaspora (and consequently created ISIS!) all to protect Israel. Now we need to take care of the last two anti-Israel threats: Syria and Iran.
Sad how even the American Conservative is quiet on this realpolitik.

#34 Comment By Mitchell On April 18, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

U. S. strategic interests? When were any of these trillion dollar wars about US interests? They have always been about Israel, and its interests. And, of course, The Israel lobby in the United States drives our foreign policy. We’re just their thug.

#35 Comment By Mike On April 19, 2017 @ 11:40 pm

You missed quite few far more important reasons than Tartus base for( why Russia with assad ? why USA against him?). I dont know whether this is a geniune naivety and ignorance or something more dark and sinister? I advise you to go and look at goole images of syrian cities in 2011. Don’t forget Syria had been rolled by the Assads since the 1960s. look at the cities images( beautiful prosperous country) . Then look at the 2017 images and what the revolutionist and alleged humanity and democracy did to Syria? ask yourself. Why the revolution started at the borders with turkey and jordan not in the capital and big cities? where did these Borders revolutionist came from? How nearly 50 thousand forgein sick fighters reached syria? Who is giving them all these weapons over the last 7 years? Whats about all other logistics? How the USA managed to pin point the origin of 3 feet long chemical shell came from the syrian army BUT couldn’t see ISIS convoys marching for miles and miles in the dessert to invade Iraq?? Did it surprise you that presedent Obama said : it will take 3 ys to defeat ISIS ?? Why ?? ISIS is a super power? Or the USA is not? How ISIS kept steeling oil? How did they smuggle it? Which port? Which transportor? Who is buying? Which bank ? And on and on and on.
what a shame