Journal Essay

Russia and the Conflict in Syria: Four Myths

Mark N. Katz

Summer 2013, Volume XX, Number 2

Dr. Katz is professor of government and politics at George Mason University and is the author of Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). He is grateful to Yulia V. Krylova (graduate student in political science at George Mason University) for research assistance on this project.

Russia has played little or no active role in the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, with one notable exception: Syria. In this one case, Moscow has provided the regime with important diplomatic and military support ever since the start of the uprising against it.

Many reasons have been cited as to why Moscow has backed the Assad regime so determinedly:

• the desire to retain Russia's naval facility in Syria (the only one Moscow has outside the former USSR),
• the fear that the downfall of Assad will lead to a geopolitical gain for America and a loss for Russia,
• the determination to prevent Syria from becoming "another Libya" (where, in Moscow's view, Russia and China allowed passage of a Security Council resolution that called for the imposition of a no-fly zone that America and its allies then exceeded the terms of to bring down the regime),
• the fear that the downfall of Assad will somehow result in increased Muslim opposition activity inside Russia itself.

Moscow's support for the Assad regime has, not surprisingly, resulted in widespread criticism in both the Middle East and the West. The often strident statements about the Syrian conflict emanating from Russia, including from its very top leaders, have helped stoke this criticism. Actual Russian foreign policy with regard to Syria, though, is more complex than it is usually portrayed.

The purpose of this article is to identify and correct four myths that have arisen about Russian foreign policy with regard to Syria: 1) that Russia firmly backs the Assad regime; 2) that Russia holds the key to resolving the Syrian conflict; 3) that Russian support for Assad has seriously damaged Moscow's ties with the wider Middle East; and 4) that after the Assad regime falls, Moscow will no longer have any influence in the Arab world.


Russia Firmly Backs the Assad Regime

This myth is widespread in the Middle East and the West. Indeed, Russian statements and actions have done much to propagate it. But, while Russia has indeed provided significant support to Damascus since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011,1 there have recently been signs that Moscow is trying to distance itself from the Assad regime. Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on November 6, 2012, in Amman, Jordan, that "we have no plans to change"2 Russian foreign policy toward Syria, three days later, an unnamed "high-level" Russian diplomatic source told the Russian daily newspaper Izvestia that "Assad's departure" was one possible outcome of the ongoing conflict.3

During Lavrov's visit to Saudi Arabia in mid-November 2012, he insisted that "Russia does not defend Assad."4 He also stated that the Syrian internal opposition should be involved in the settlement process in Syria. In his press conference in Riyadh, he noted, "We inevitably stand for consolidation of the Syrian opposition and meet all its representatives, both internal and external opposition."5 Lavrov further stated on November 28 in Moscow, "Russia's involvement in the armed conflict is just out of the question."6

It has not only been the Russian foreign minister who has made statements such as these. In his December 3, 2012, visit to Turkey, President Vladimir Putin noted that Russia and Turkey have differences over Syria, but insisted, "We [the Russians] are not attorneys of Syria's current government."7 And, although in March 2013 Moscow criticized the British foreign minister for stating that the UK was "stepping up" its support for the Syrian opposition, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made clear that "Russia has no plans to increase the scope of its military-technical assistance to Syria."8

Statements such as these from Russia's top leadership can hardly be welcome to the Assad regime and its supporters in Syria. Even less so was the December 2012 statement, reported in The Moscow Times by Russian Middle East expert Alexander Shumilin, that "Putin likely traveled to Istanbul with a serious proposal, possibly including the evacuation of Syrian President Bashar Assad to Russia."9 What explains this increasing Russian ambivalence toward the Assad regime? One possibility is an increasing sense in Moscow that the Assad regime is going to collapse in the near future. While Moscow may not welcome this, it will want to try to establish good working relations with a new Syrian government in order to preserve Russian interests in Syria.


Russia Holds the Key to Resolving the Syrian Conflict

This myth tends to be held by those in the West who do not believe (or have stopped believing) in Myth 1. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, for example, observed in his column of February 4, 2013, that "there's no good way out of the Syrian crisis without Russian help."10 He saw Foreign Minister Lavrov's meeting with Syrian opposition leader Sheik Mouaz al-Khatib at the Munich Security Conference at the beginning of February 2013, as well as Lavrov's proposal to arrange talks between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition, as evidence of a new Russian willingness to play a "positive role" in resolving the Syrian conflict.11

But is Russia now willing and able to play a "positive role" in Syria? If this "positive role" is understood as Russian cooperation with America and its Western and Arab allies to arrange for a transfer of power from the Assad regime to the opposition, this does not seem likely. Lavrov's conversation with al-Khatib in Munich, after all, is hardly the first meeting between Russian officialdom and the Syrian opposition. Indeed, the Russian press and Syrian opposition leaders have reported several such meetings. These previous encounters did not signal a change in Moscow's policy toward Syria. While it is possible that this February 2013 meeting might just be the harbinger of Russia's beginning to play a "positive role" in Syria, there are at least three other possible Russian motives for Lavrov's meeting with al-Khatib.

One is that Moscow is merely hedging its bets. As noted earlier, Moscow is now openly acknowledging the possibility that the Assad regime may fall. This being the case, it would only be sensible for Moscow to try to build a positive relationship with the Syrian opposition in order to improve Russia's chances for retaining its economic and military stakes in Syria, should the current Syrian opposition become the next regime. Moscow's attempt to position itself to work with a post-Assad regime in Syria (should it arise), though, does not mean that Moscow has decided to play a "positive role" in bringing about such a transition.

Another possible motive is more sinister. As Ignatius himself noted, al-Khatib's proposal to meet with even "acceptable" representatives from the Assad regime was heavily criticized by other Syrian opposition figures. Lavrov's praise for al-Khatib's proposal, then, may not have been intended to bring about a dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition, but to encourage a split within the ranks of the Syrian opposition for the benefit of the Assad regime (and its Russian supporters).

A third possible motive for Lavrov's meeting with al-Khatib is much more modest: Moscow may just want to be seen as being open to discussions with the Syrian opposition in an effort to reduce the loud criticism that its support for the Assad regime has garnered in the Arab world.

Whatever Lavrov's motivation for meeting with al-Khatib in Munich, however, the crisis in Syria may have moved well beyond the point where Russia can play much of a role, positive or otherwise, in resolving it. Even the publicly expressed doubts of Putin himself about whether the Assad regime will survive have not served to persuade Assad that his time is up and that he had better leave the country while he still can. Although Ignatius and many in the Obama administration may believe that there is "no good way out of the Syrian crisis without Russian help," the truth of the matter is this: Even if it suddenly became willing (and it is not clear that it would), Russia may simply be unable to make a positive contribution to the resolution of the conflict in Syria. America and others, then, would be well-advised to proceed on this pessimistic assessment and not on the unrealistic hope that Moscow can somehow help us resolve the Syrian conflict, if only we could just persuade it to do so.


Russian Support for Assad Has Seriously Damaged Its Ties with the Wider Middle East

This myth is not completely false. Russia's support for the Alawite-minority regime is highly unpopular with Sunni Arabs and Turks. But, just as American support for Israel has not prevented the United States from enjoying reasonably good relations with most Sunni-dominated governments in the Middle East in recent years, Russian support for the Assad regime has not prevented Moscow from also maintaining good relations with most (though not all) such governments. Space does not permit a discussion of Moscow's relations with each of these. I will focus instead on Moscow's ties to six that are especially important: Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.


Turkey and Russia have had serious differences with regard to Syria. Forced to care for a growing number of refugees fleeing Syria as well as Syrian government forces firing across the border into Turkey, Ankara has not been pleased that Moscow continues to aid the Assad regime. For its part, Moscow is not happy that Turkey has supported the Syrian opposition and has called for the departure of Assad as well as (more worrisome to Russia) for NATO to take action with regard to Syria. Moscow was especially furious when, in October 2012, Ankara forced a Syrian airliner flying home from Russia across Turkey to land, due to a tip from the U.S. government that it was conveying Russian arms to Damascus (according to one Russian press account, it was carrying radar equipment for anti-aircraft systems and elements of missile systems).12

Yet, despite their differences over Syria, Russian-Turkish relations have remained good. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Moscow in July 2012, when several important economic agreements were reached (including one for Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey).13 Putin also visited Turkey in early December 2012. While Putin and Erdoğan expressed differences over Syria, their main focus appeared to be their bilateral trade relationship. Having reached a massive $32 billion in 2011, Putin and Erdoğan expressed the hope that this would climb to $100 billion in the near future.14 Bolstered by large-scale energy and construction deals as well as tourism (in 2012, Turkey was the favorite foreign destination for Russian tourists, 2.5 million of them),15 Russian-Turkish bilateral economic interests are simply too important to both Moscow and Ankara for either to allow them to be disrupted by differences over Syria. (One prominent Russian observer intimated that the U.S. government's tip-off to Ankara about weapons being on board that Syrian airliner was an American ploy to disrupt Russian-Turkish cooperation.)16


Jordan and Russia have also differed over Syria. Like Turkey, Jordan has been forced to care for a large number of refugees fleeing from the conflict in Syria; it is unhappy with continued Russian support to the Assad regime, which has allowed the conflict to continue. Moscow, for its part, is distressed that the Syrian opposition has been receiving arms via Jordan. Here again, though, these two governments have decided not to let their differences over Syria hamper their improving bilateral relations. On February 19, 2013, Putin received Jordan's King Abdullah II in Moscow. Although they discussed Syria and the Middle East peace process, they focused more on their growing trade ties ($426.5 million in 2011), the possibility of Russian participation in the construction of Jordan's first nuclear power plant, and even military-technical cooperation (which Putin described as "developing well").17


Some Russian commentators have expressed apprehension about Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohammad Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.18 The Russian government, though, has taken a more pragmatic attitude. Although the new Egyptian government has been critical of the Assad regime, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov expressed support for Morsi's proposal for the creation of an Egyptian-Iranian-Saudi-Turkish quartet to resolve the Syrian problem.19 Further, while Morsi upset Washington by working to improve Egypt's relations with Iran, this initiative did not bother Moscow, as Russia also has relatively good relations with Tehran. Russian tourists continue to visit Egypt in large numbers. Indeed, 1.9 million Russians traveled there in 2012.20 In February 2013, the Russian ambassador to Egypt, Sergei Kirpichenko, advised, "The scale of Egypt's Islamization should not be exaggerated" and even blamed the Islamization that has occurred on the previous regime: "The country took the Islamization course back in the 1970s, when Anwar El Sadat…started flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic political forces, and the revolution of 2011 brought those forces to power."21 Perhaps especially since the Morsi government has differences with the United States as well as with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Moscow has chosen to focus on those areas on which the Russian and Egyptian governments agree rather than on their differences over Syria.


President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and other high-level Russian officials have often cited how UN Security Council Resolution 1973 imposing a no-fly zone over Libya was "overstepped" by the West and its Arab allies to bring about the downfall of the Qadhafi regime. This is the reason Russia will not agree to even more limited Security Council sanctions against Assad. Moscow is adamant that it will not allow what happened in Libya to be repeated in Syria.22

It is ironic, then, that (despite initial difficulties) Russia has developed relatively good relations with the new government in Libya. In December 2012, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov announced that Moscow was in talks with Tripoli regarding Russia's training of Libyan military personnel.23 In January 2013, the Russian oil firm Tatneft held discussions with Libya's National Oil Corporation about the former resuming operations in Libya.24 And, in February 2013, the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation announced that it was holding talks on resuming Russian arms sales to Libya.25 The post-Qadhafi Russian-Libyan relationship, then, is yet another case of how differences over Syria have not been allowed to get in the way of improving bilateral ties.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar

Saudi Arabia, though, is one country with which Russian ties have deteriorated as a result of Russian support for the Assad regime. Shortly after the outset of the Arab uprisings at the beginning of 2011, tensions emerged between Moscow and Riyadh, first over Libya and then over Syria. Many Russian observers portray Saudi Arabia as a sinister, anti-Russian force. While the Obama administration's support for the Arab uprisings is based on what Moscow views as the mistaken notion that democracy is possible in Arab countries, Saudi Arabia — which Moscow does not see as a champion of democracy — knowingly supports them in order to promote the rise of Sunni radicalism, not just in the Middle East, but in the Muslim regions of Russia.26 Russian commentators also express disappointment that Moscow's hopes for increased Saudi-Russian economic ties (which grew especially high when Putin brought a huge delegation of Russian businessmen with him to Riyadh in 2007) have been largely disappointed.27 Without anything to mitigate the acrimony, Saudi-Russian relations appear unlikely to improve as long as the Syrian conflict persists, and perhaps even afterward.

While sometimes difficult even beforehand, Russia's relations with Qatar have also soured over the Syrian uprising. Just as it does with Saudi Arabia, Moscow sees Qatar's support for the Syrian opposition as reflecting a desire to promote Sunni radicalism in both that country and elsewhere (including Russia's North Caucasus).28 The fact that a state as small as Qatar has been acting in opposition to Russian interests is especially galling to Moscow. Russian-Qatari differences over Syria, though, have not prevented the giant Russian natural-gas corporation Gazprom from signing an agreement in December 2012 to purchase "major volumes" of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from Qatar or from opening a representative office in Doha in February 2013.29

Although Russian fears that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are actively supporting Sunni radicals, not just in Syria but also in the former USSR, may go a long way toward explaining Moscow's poor relations with these two monarchies, it is noteworthy that Moscow either has or hopes to have improved economic ties with Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Libya (space does not allow for a discussion of other Sunni-dominated Arab governments). This suggests that, if Saudi Arabia and Qatar could bring themselves to increase their economic ties with Russia, the existing level of animosity in their relations with Moscow could diminish considerably. However, while the Qatari government has taken some steps in this direction, it is not certain whether the Saudi government would feel inclined to do so.

Iran, Iraq and Israel

Not all governments in the Middle East, of course, are Sunni-dominated. The Shia-dominated governments of Iran and Iraq also support the Assad regime, so Syria is not an issue that divides them from Moscow (though there have been others). Further, while Israel has not had friendly relations with the Assad regime, the Israeli government fears that its downfall will lead to the rise of a Sunni fundamentalist regime that will be even more hostile toward the Jewish state.30 Their shared fear about a post-Assad Syria, then, is one more common interest that has contributed to the close Russian-Israeli relationship that has developed since the rise of Putin.31


After Assad Falls, Moscow Will No Longer Have Influence in the Arab World

While this viewpoint has adherents in both the West and the Middle East, it appears to be most strongly held in Russia itself. Several prominent Russian observers have expressed this fear,32 and it undoubtedly reflects the misgivings of the top Russian leadership. But not all Russian observers are so pessimistic. In an article entitled "Time to Return," published in the conservative Russian newspaper Sovetskaia Rossia, Artyom Leonov observed that — despite their unhappiness over previous Soviet and Russian support for Saddam Hussein — Iraqi government officials are now calling for resuming cooperation between Moscow and Baghdad. In fact, Iraq expects "assistance from its Russian friends to further the comprehensive economic reconstruction and development of Iraq."33 Leonov further stated, "Similar ideas are increasingly prevalent in Egyptian, Yemeni and Algerian government and economic circles."34 I noted earlier that, despite its unhappiness with Russia for having supported Qadhafi, Moscow has recently improved its relations with the new Libyan government.

What all this suggests is that, even if the Assad regime falls, there will still be Arab governments willing to work closely with Moscow. What this also suggests is that if the Assad regime does fall and is replaced by a Sunni-dominated government, Moscow could sooner or later develop good relations with it, too. Nor is this something that Washington would oppose. The Obama administration (I was told by a senior Defense Department official) has launched a quiet diplomatic campaign to persuade Moscow that Washington is willing to allow Russia to retain its military and economic interests in Syria after the downfall of Assad. Such assurances, of course, would not be binding on a new Syrian government. The fact, though, that Moscow has managed to improve relations with governments that America helped bring to power in Iraq and Libya after Washington previously worked to oust regimes allied to Russia in those countries at least raises the possibility that this pattern could be repeated in Syria after the downfall of Assad.

Indeed, Moscow's ability to find partners in the Arab world is not just possible, but likely. Even now, when Sunni Arab and Turkish animosity toward Russia for supporting the Assad regime is running high, several Sunni-dominated Arab governments as well as Turkey are willing to cooperate with Moscow. Instead of resulting in diminished Russian influence, the downfall of the Assad regime might actually provide opportunities for Moscow to gain influence in the region through the removal of Syria as a source of contention. Just as with Iraq and Libya, regional anger over Russian support for Assad is likely to fade once his regime has fallen and various Middle Eastern governments seek outside support against one another as well as the United States in the many other ongoing disputes that are likely to continue.

Moscow's support for the Assad regime since the uprising began in 2011 has hurt Russia's image, both in the West and in much of the Middle East. And with the weakness of the Assad regime increasing the likelihood that it will eventually fall, Moscow's support for it appears to have been a grave — but not fatal — mistake. Indeed, Moscow appears to be trying to ameliorate this by distancing itself from the Assad regime somewhat, successfully courting some (if not all) predominantly Sunni governments in the region despite their opposition to Russian support for Assad, and positioning Russia to exploit the region's many differences, with the United States in particular. In the Middle East, then, Russia's Syria policy has resulted in Moscow's being down, but not out.


1 For details on what Russia (as well as other governments) have done to help the Assad regime since the outset of the Syrian uprising in 2011, see "Enablers of the Syrian Conflict: How Targeting Third Parties Can Slow the Atrocities in Syria," Human Rights First, March 2013,

2 "Russia's View on Syria Will Not Change—Lavrov," Interfax-AVN Online, November 6, 2012 (World News Connection).

3 Konstantin Volkov, "The Foreign Ministry Does Not Believe in the Possibility of Peace in Syria," Izvestia Online, November 9, 2012 (World News Connection).

4 "Russia Does Not Support Assad Regime in Syria—Lavrov," Interfax-AVN Online, November 15, 2012.

5 "Speech and Answers of S.V. Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, to Mass Media Questions in the Course of Joint Press Conference with Kh. Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain, Summarizing the Results of the Second Ministerial Meeting of Russia-CCASG Strategic Dialogue, Riyadh, November 14, 2012," Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Official Site, November 15, 2012,!OpenDocument.

6 "Lavrov Rules Out Russia's Involvement in Armed Conflict in Syria," Interfax-AVN Online, November 28, 2012 (World News Connection).

7 "Putin Urges Syria and Turkey to Demonstrate Restraint," Interfax-AVN Online, December 3, 2012 (World News Connection).

8 "Moscow Claims Neutrality in Syria Conflict," RIA Novosti, March 13, 2013,

9 Jonathan Earle, "In Istanbul, Putin Slams Missile Plan," Moscow Times, December 4, 2012 (World News Connection).

10 David Ignatius, "Involving Russia in Syria," Washington Post, February 4, 2013,

11 Ibid.

12 Elkhan Kuliyev, "Turkish Fighters Ground Syrian Airliner," New Times, October 15, 2012 (Current Digest of the Russian Press 64, no. 42: 17-18).

13 Ibid.

14 "Russia's Putin Heads to Turkey amid Differences over Syria and Concerns about His Health," Fox News, December 2, 2012,

15 "Tourism Abroad Up 6 percent in 2012," Moscow Times, March 4, 2013,

16 Fyodor Lukyanov, "The Russo-Turkish Gambit," Rossiiskaia gazeta, October 17, 2012 (Current Digest of the Russian Press 64:42, 18-19).

17 "Putin Meets with Jordanian King Abdullah II," RIA Novosti, February 20, 2013,

18 See, for example, Roman Popkov and Aleksandr Gazov, "The Arab Street Has Spoken with Revolutionary Bluntness: Egypt Is Becoming a Country of Permanent Revolution," Osobaya Bukva, January 29, 2013 (World News Connection).

19 "Russia Backs Egypt's Quartet Initiative for Syria—FM Lavrov," Interfax-AVN Online, November 5, 2012 (World News Connection).

20 "Tourism Abroad Up 6 percent in 2012," Moscow Times, March 4, 2013,

21 "Russian Ambassador to Cairo Denies Total Islamization of Egypt," Interfax-AVN Online, February 11, 2013 (World News Connection).

22 See, for example, David M. Herszenhorn and Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Putin Defends Position on Syria and Chastises U.S. on Libya Outcome," New York Times, December 20, 2012, See also Dmitri Trenin, "The Mythical Alliance: Russia's Syria Policy," Carnegie Papers (Carnegie Moscow Center, February 2013), 4-7,

23 "Russia to Train New Military Personnel in Libya," Interfax-AVN Online, December 13, 2012 (World News Connection).

24 "Tatneft Negotiating Return to Libya with NOC," Interfax-AVN Online, January 28, 2013 (World News Connection).

25 "Russia Expects to Revive Military Ties with Libya—Official," Interfax-AVN Online, February 19, 2013 (World News Connection).

26 Yuriy Paniyev, "Assad's Fate Is Being Discussed in New York: It Is Odd to See Riyadh, Where Political Parties Are Prohibited, as an Activist of the Movement for Democratic Transformations in Syria," Nezavisimaia Gazeta Online, February 13, 2012 (World News Connection); and Amal Mudallali, "Russia's Fear of Radical Islam Drives Its Support for Assad," Al-Monitor, July 26, 2012,

27 See, for example, Igor Yavlyansky, "U.S. Converting Arab Revolutions to Defense Sector Profits," Izvestia, August 29, 2012 (Current Digest of the Russian Press 64, no. 35: 18-19.) See also Mark N. Katz, "The Impact of the Arab Spring on Saudi-Russian Relations," ORIENT 53, no. 4 (2012): 27-31.

28 Ivan Konstantinov, "Genie of Islamism Comes Out of the Bottle," Nezavisimaia Gazeta, March 13, 2012 (Current Digest of the Russian Press 64, no.10-11, 10-11).

29 "Gazprom to Purchase Major Volumes of LPG in Qatar," Interfax-AVN Online, December 11, 2012 (World News Connection); and "Gazprom Inaugurates Representative Office in Qatar," Gazprom press release, February 11, 2013,

30 Josef Olmert, "Israel and Alawite Syria: The Odd Couple of the Middle East?" Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs 7, no.1 (2013): 17-25.

31 On this fascinating subject, see Viktor Savenkov, "What Did Putin Get in Bethlehem? Russia's Relations with Israel Are Now for the First Time Better than with the Arab World," Svobodnaia Pressa, June 28, 2012 (World News Connection); and Fyodor Lukyanov, "Russia's Israel Policies," Russia in Global Affairs, January 26, 2013,

32 See, for example, "Why We Need Our Friend Assad," Vedomosti, June 5, 2012 (Current Digest of the Russian Press 64, no. 23: 6-7), and Konstantin Volkov, "Russia Fears Syrian Opposition Victory," Izvestia, December 17, 2012 (Current Digest of the Russian Press 64, no. 51-52: 11).

33 Artyom Leonov, "Time to Return," Sovetskaia Rossia, September 18, 2012 (Current Digest of the Russian Press 64, no. 38:7-8).

34 Ibid.