The average Westerner can be forgiven for wondering what Russia sees in the Assad regime. We wonder why, along with China, it vetoes UN Security Council resolutions holding the Syrian government accountable for its crimes. We wonder why it bombs all the rebel groups, when — if you’re into bombing — the Assad regime is worse for the country than any of them.
Among Russia’s main motivations are access to the Mediterranean via its naval base in Tartarus that it leases from Syria. Also, already dealing with its own Islamist extremism problem in states such as Chechnya, it doesn’t want even more of them running riot in Russia. In fact, Russia doesn’t actually seem to be propping up Assad but the Syrian government (as if it were possible to separate that from Assad). As Reuters reports:
Russia will countenance Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaving office, but only when it is confident a change of leader will not trigger a collapse of the Syrian government, sources familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking say.
Getting to that point could take years, and in the meantime Russia is prepared to keep backing Assad, regardless of international pressure to jettison him, those sources said.
Such steadfast support is likely to further complicate already stalled peace talks with Assad’s opponents and sour relations with Washington which wants the Syrian leader gone.
“Russia is not going to part company with Assad until two things happen,” Sir Tony Brenton, Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, told Reuters.
“Firstly, until they are confident he won’t be replaced with some sort of Islamist takeover, and secondly until it can be guaranteed that their own position in Syria, their alliance and their military base, are sustainable going forward.”
Russia is missing the point about stemming the flow of Islamic extremists to Russia. By bombing them and supporting the Assad regime, it is just adding more fuel to the Islamic extremist fire and creating more incentive for Islamic extremist migration to states such as Chechnya and attacks on Russia itself.