Throughout its post-Soviet history, Russia has consistently used arguments about state sovereignty to oppose any form of military intervention in the Middle East. Yet now Russia is not only staging a military intervention of its own in the Middle East, but using arguments about state sovereignty as justification for doing so.
It is the Western powers who are Russia’s primary targets – rhetorically at least – but the responses from the US, Britain, and their NATO allies show more emotion than nuance. How then do we explain the apparently contradictory reasoning behind Russia’s actions, if it’s not simply hypocrisy? The answer is that the West and Russia hold fundamentally different definitions of state sovereignty and, in the Middle East at least, it is Russia’s perspective that is making for a far more effective policy.
Western countries tend to recognise states, not governments. That’s a very useful device for having a flexible policy, but a poor device for having a consistent one. Take the example of Egypt in July 2013, when a democratically-elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed by the military. For the US, defining the event as a ‘coup’ would have obligated the suspension of military aid to an important strategic ally, in accordance with American legislation. For Britain, like other Western powers, it would have meant becoming embroiled in arguments that were for Egyptians to have; messy arguments about whether the deposition was legal, laudable, popular, approvable etc.
Instead, when challenged on the subject during a radio interview the following day, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague was adamant: ‘We recognise states, not governments’ he told the BBC, and that meant working with the new military authorities. That philosophy has allowed adaptability to the revolutionary tumult of the Arab Spring, with Western powers being able to justify inactivity when allowing some governments to fall, and pro-activity when it came to engaging with those who replaced them.
But it also allowed them to get rid of some leaders who they felt needed to go: Saddam Hussein in Iraq (2003), Muammar Qadhafi in Libya (2011). They wanted Bashar Al-Assad in Syria to be next. Recognising states rather than governments had already allowed the US and many others to fit a certain Syrian opposition group – ‘The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ – with the similarly technical title of ‘the legitimate representative of the Syrian people’. That wasn’t a government, so the keys to the Syrian embassy couldn’t be handed over yet, but it did allow for a policy of delivering military assistance to help them in the civil war.
But that’s where the weaknesses of the Western word-game began to show. There was Barack Obama’s ‘red lines’, in which he warned the Syrian regime not to use chemical weapons but proved unable to act when it did. There was the search for a ‘moderate opposition’ for the US to arm. That policy, through a combination of strict definitions and late timing, saw 57 US-trained men ultimately deployed into Syria (as opposed to the intended first batch of 3,000), with perhaps as few as eight still fighting there now. And finally, while the West let some governments in the region come and go, it promised others – mostly in the Gulf – ‘unwavering support’. Not all were convinced. Russia’s approach was to be more stark, more consistent and, perhaps ultimately, more effective.
Russia defines the state through the government. Its view is that there is only one government in a state, and what happens within that state’s borders is primarily the affair of that government alone. There are of course echoes for Russia’s domestic politics, but the implication for the Middle East is that Russia will support an intervention that supports a government, but oppose an intervention that opposes one.
The 2003 Iraq war was deeply resented by Russia, when Saddam Hussein was removed on security grounds by the West. But the particular intensity of Russia’s current regional ire can more be explained by Libya, when Muammar Qadhafi was removed on humanitarian ones. Russia refrained from vetoing UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011), which sanctioned the use of military force in Libya to protect civilians from military attack. But, after it abstained, Russia was incensed when – as far as it was concerned – the West abused its humanitarian gesture by using the resolution as a pretext to support one side in a civil war. The NATO-led coalition destroyed Qadhafi’s armed forces, while leaving rebel militias to bombard pro-regime towns and districts. Not only had another regional government been deposed, the Russian emphasis on stability and anti-Islamism was violated by Libya’s ensuing chaos.
In Syria, Russia took a stand. Make no mistake, Russian decision-makers had no personal affection for Saddam, or Qadhafi, and they don’t necessarily like Assad as a man. But Russia’s policy prefers to look at the bigger picture of its objectives, while the West gets stuck on the details. It is not Al-Assad as a man that Russia supports in Syria, but rather the regime that he represents: secular, anti-Islamist and, above all, incumbent. To the Russians, the Western fixation with one man seems petty in the light of the bigger picture. And, while the US frets about distinguishing between Syria’s plethora of warring factions to find 57 men that it trusts with guns, Russia has always taken a different definition: There is the government, and everyone who opposes it are ‘terrorists’.
This is a highly realist Russian policy. With a booming military-industrial complex at a time of low oil prices, the Russians are happy to be close to governments in the region that others do not like: Russia wants friends and favours in the Middle East, and those regimes in fear of their survival want weapons. And, with the West picking and choosing what governments should come or go, that consistency may win Russia more friends to come. It fits Russia’s trade ambitions, its strategic goals, and its world view. The policy could, and has, been described as immoral, callous, and crude. But it has a simple and consistent objective – keep the Syrian regime in power – and a clear way of achieving it. That, in such a complicated region, is more than most.
Nicholas Wade was a Senior Associate at Menas, and the Regional Manager for the Middle East & North Africa. He previously worked as the Middle East analyst in the BBC’s research department, and as a journalist in several news organisations, including the BBC World Service. To speak to our country and industry experts about any of the issues mentioned in the article, or others connected with the Middle East, please do contact us.