What is the Russian interest in Syria


Dr. Margarete Klein

Dr. Margarete Klein is a research associate in the Russia / CIS research group at the Science and Politics Foundation. Her main areas of work are Russian foreign, security and military policy.

Interests, (failure) successes, chances for a mutual conflict resolution

During a state visit by Putin in Berlin on June 1, 2012, demonstrators protest against the Russian policy on Syria. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The Syrian conflict is one of the few international conflicts in which Moscow plays a central role. Its refusal to accept any attempt to exert international pressure on the Assad regime within the framework of the UN Security Council brought Moscow sharp criticism from Western and regional actors and damaged Russia's image in the Arab world. What interests, motives and perceptions shape Moscow's stance on the Syrian conflict? How successful is Russia's politics - measured against its interests? And within what framework are there opportunities for a joint conflict resolution with Moscow?

Russia's stance on the Syrian conflict

From the beginning, Russia took a clear stance in the Syrian conflict, which it has maintained to this day despite all criticism from the West and the region itself: the struggles between the regime and the opposition can only be resolved within Syria, namely through open-ended negotiations between the two sides Assad's resignation should not be a precondition. Interference from outside forces is strictly rejected, not only referring to the arming of the opposition or military intervention, but also to the imposition of sanctions or the mere exertion of unilateral diplomatic pressure on the leadership in Damascus. Accordingly, Russia not only blocked draft resolutions in the UN Security Council that provided for sanctions (October 2011, July 2012), but also those that merely condemned the use of force by the Syrian regime, without the opponents of the regime being condemned as well and calling for non-violence (February 2012). The Russian leadership is pretending to take a neutral stance. Several times, President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov and Prime Minister Medvedev emphasized that their country - unlike the Western states or the Gulf monarchies - does not take sides unilaterally. The concrete behavior of Russia, however, de facto contradicts the claim to neutrality. Because to this day Moscow supports the Assad regime in a variety of ways. Firstly, the legitimation strategy of the Syrian leadership is supported on the international stage. By portraying the opposition primarily as a group of "fanatics", Islamists or terrorists, the blame for the outbreak of violence is implicitly assigned to them. Second, Moscow continues to supply weapons to the Syrian government, including air defense systems (Buk-M2 [NATO code: "SA-17 Grizzly"] and Panzir-S1 [NATO code: "SA-22 Greyhound"]) and helicopters. Russia points out that the exports are permitted under international law. After all, due to Russian and Chinese refusal, the UN Security Council has not yet been able to impose an arms embargo. As a reliable exporter - so the Russian justification - Moscow is therefore obliged to fulfill existing contracts. But "new deliveries" have been suspended, said Vyacheslav Dzirkaln from the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation in July 2012. Third, Moscow is also helping the Assad regime to survive economically. After the printing of Syrian banknotes in Austria was stopped due to EU sanctions, the Russian state printing company "Gossnak" stepped in, according to the Syrian ambassador in Moscow. According to Western press reports, 240 tons of banknotes were said to have reached Syria between July and September 2012. The Syrian government needs the money to buy important imported goods and to secure domestic political support.