Syria's bloody civil war has been going on for nearly two years. Two things are certain. Firstly, we are no closer to a diplomatic solution. The International Crisis Group has called out the international community's "divisions, dysfunctionality, and powerlessness" in failing to reach one. Secondly, this stalemate is costing lives. Tens of thousands of lives: the death toll is currently in excess of 36,000 and rising every day. The conflict is becoming increasingly complex, with the public divided, Bashar al-Assad's opponents splintering and Islamist elements entering alongside those fighting for democracy.
Many previous attempts at brokering a diplomatic solution or implementing sanctions have been stalled by Syria's only remaining international allies: China, Russia, and Iran. The west has been criticised for seeking regime change: Hillary Clinton and other leaders have said that Assad can have no role in Syria's future. However, it is worth noting that Kofi Annan's peace plan in February 2012 was an exceptionally neutral document, calling for a Syrian-led solution to the conflict, wording that has been frequently used by Russia and China. The plan managed to gain the unanimous support of the UN Security Council – a significant achievement – but the powers were unable to overcome their divisions. Western states continued to talk about regime change, while Russia continued to stress the illegitimacy of outside interference, and to supply weapons to the regime. The plan failed and Annan resigned from his role as mediator.
Disagreements between the powers in the Security Council are nothing new, but the level of the stalemate has consigned the UN to a position in the side-lines as the bodies pile up. China, of course, has a long history of opposing intervention on human rights grounds, given its own track record. But what is driving Russia to stand so staunchly by its Middle Eastern ally?
There are several reasons. Many have pointed to active arms contracts with between Moscow and Assad's government, reportedly worth $4bn, and the Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Certainly, there is a financial interest here as well as a strategic one. According to the Moscow Times, Russia's investment in Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism equalled $19.4bn in 2009. And Russian companies are benefiting from Syria's rich natural resources, with one company, Stroitransgaz, building a natural gas processing plant, and another, Tatneft, pumping oil from Syria and investing millions of dollars in drilling wells.
However, it would be naïve to believe that this was the only factor at play. Back in August 2011, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "Russia will do everything it can to prevent a Libyan scenario happening in Syria." It was a telling statement. The Russian government is seriously concerned about the spread of Islamic radicalism. There is broad pessimism in Russia about the impact of the Arab Spring, which is seen to have destabilised the region and opened the door to Islamist regimes. Given the increasing role of Islamist groups in the Syrian conflict, Russia sees keeping Assad in office as the only way to prevent the country from meeting this fate. This is a popular position among the Russian public, due to the country's own long-running problems with Islamic terrorism from the northern Caucasus. Some analysts have suggested that Russia may even be worried about a knock on effect on areas like Dagestan.
In addition to this, Russia – like China – is inherently suspicious of western intervention and signs that western powers are seeking to increase their influence. This is a hangover from the Cold War, and part of a desire to preserve at least some of its superpower status. The heavy Russian investment in Syria outlined above demonstrates the alliance between the two countries. If the Syrian regime falls, Russia would lose its last ally (not to mention client) in the Middle East. This would be particularly bad given that the new regime would have western backing. France and other countries have formally recognised the rebels, and Britain has talked about providing arms to the opposition.
Russia, then, firmly believes that the fall of the Assad government would be disastrous for Russian interests, and that keeping this regime in place is the only way to protect Syria from falling into the hands of extremists. Meanwhile, the west is desperately seeking a coherent position. Clinton has admitted that the US and its allies had been relying too much on the Syrian National Council, a group of exiles based in Paris, out of touch with the situation on the ground. Given the fractured nature of the opposition, the scope of western intervention is far from simple. And so the situation rolls on, with the UN relegated to irrelevance by the disagreements of its main powers, Russia arming the regime, and the west backing and arming the rebels. Hope for a diplomatic solution is reducing by the minute, but as the death toll continues to rise, we must ask how long this will go on.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.