Bashar al-Assad: Moscow’s Indispensable Man

13 10 2011
Editor’s note: the following article is by Brendan Michael Wilson, a frequent MEA contributor. 
Russia’s veto on Monday of a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian government’s violent suppression of the nationwide Arab Spring protests should come as a surprise to no one. The only surprise is that they managed to convince China to veto the resolution as well.Moscow has explained this veto by expressing their long held belief in the respect for national sovereignty. This is in keeping with Russia’s foreign policy tradition, but much more is at play. Vetoing this resolution, and protecting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, serves Moscow’s Great Power ambitions, her regional geopolitical objectives, and her economic interests.

In order to put Moscow’s actions into context, it is necessary to understand Russia’s overarching foreign policy objectives. This can be found in the Foreign Policy Concept that was released in 2008. In this, multiple references can be found to “democratizing the global order” and establishing “multi-polarity”. These phrases may sound quaint, but they are really just diplo-speak for “cutting the Yankees down to size.”

Russia’s government bristles at their loss of power relative to the United States since the end of the Cold War. They feel threatened by America’s status as the world’s only superpower and wish to regain their status as a rival power. Since Russia cannot reconstruct the Soviet Union, its only option is to do everything it can to reduce American power by obstructing American objectives.

This is the fundamental aim of Russian foreign policy and the prism through which everything Russia does must be understood. Often, this achieved simply by using, or threatening to use, their veto at the Security Council. This is why Moscow is constantly watering down or blocking resolutions that the US supports, whether they are directed to Syria, Libya, Sudan, or whoever. In their thinking, anything that benefits America must be bad for Russia, and vice versa. Classic zero sum politics. This thinking also influences Russia’s geopolitical position in the Middle East.

The Assad regime plays an important role in Russia’s ability to project power in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, which would otherwise be the sole domain of NATO. Syria leases a Naval base in the port of Tartus to the Russian Navy under an agreement that dates back to the Soviet era. Assad also acts as an intermediary in Russia’s relationship with Iran. If the Assad regime were to fall, it is not likely that the close relationship between Moscow and Damascus would persist, possibly imperiling the port at Tartus and complicating Russia’s veiled relationship with Iran. This would have further consequences for Russia’s defense industry.

Aside from raw materials, Russia’s only major export is military hardware. However, the quality of Russian military equipment is inferior to American and European equipment. Consequently, the only customers for Russian fighter jets, tanks and missiles are the regimes that the Western nations refuse to sell to – for obvious reasons. Syria currently has more than $4 billion of military purchases under contract. This and future deals depend on the Assad regime’s survival.

Vladimir Putin

So, in spite of Bashar al-Assad’s obvious brutality and willingness to do whatever it takes to hold on to power, Moscow sees him as an indispensable man. His presence remains a thorn in the side of the West. He is the lynchpin to Russia’s regional objectives in the Middle East. He provides the Russian military with a presence in the Mediterranean and the Russian military industry with much needed revenue.

These factors matter far more to Moscow than the demands of the Syrian people. The same dynamics are at work in Russia’s shady relationships with countries like Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and so on. Monday’s veto is but one example in recent years of Russia’s protection racket for nefarious regimes, with many more to come.

Today’s Russia is no Soviet Union. However, as the principal ally, provider of diplomatic protection, and arms supplier of authoritarian regimes the world over, Moscow has once again positioned itself as the epicenter of tyranny in the world.

Iran Hypothetical

21 07 2011


I recently posted a link to an article in a LinkedIn group that I am apart of. The story was about high-level ex-CIA and Mossad agents predicting a forthcoming Israeli attack on Iran.

A group member commented on the story, asking what I thought Iran’s response would be to such an attack. My answer was so substantial and long-winded that I decided to post it here.


These well-informed opinions aside, an Israeli attack on Iran is far from a given. The repercussions in the region could be catastrophic and I’m not sure Israel is willing to take on that level of risk, especially with the United States reducing its presence in the region. Israel has a hard enough time accepting that the Bashar Assad regime might fall.

In addition, a retaliation from Iran is not a given. The precedent for this is Israel’s bombing of a suspected nuclear facility in Syria back in 2007. Israel never mentioned it in the press and Syria never retaliated. The whole thing kind of just went away.

Katyusha Rocket

However, the odds of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities “just going away” are slim. There has just been too much high-profile hostile rhetoric between the two nations for it to happen and blow over without a response. It would be awkward.

But your question was about the response. Iran couldn’t let it pass without some sort of response, if symbolic, in order to maintain some credibility. It’s hard to imagine Iran doing the same to Israel, as Israeli air defenses are very strong. Sea and land attacks are out too.

One choice could be a large-scale rocket attack from Iran on Israel, but this would be unpredictable (hard to pinpoint exactly where the rockets will hit from that range) and would invite a massive retaliation from Israel, possibly drawing in the United States.

That leaves proxies, namely Hizballah and Hamas. The question then is whether either group would be willing to strike Israel for the sake of the Islamic Republic.

For Hamas, the answer is almost certainly no. Hamas isn’t going to risk its political position in Palestine to aid Iran, which is both Shiite and Persian. Two strikes.

Hizballah, on the other hand, might be willing. Nasrallah has repeatedly declared his allegiance to the Supreme Leader, but the consequences of dragging Lebanon into another war would severely damage the group for decades to come.

However, Hizballah has been receiving over a $100 million per year in assistance from Iran for some time now. For Iran, Hizballah represents an insurance policy against an attack from Israel. If Israel does strike Iranian nuclear facilities, you’d better believe Iran will be knocking on Hizballah’s door to collect.

Iran’s options in retaliation are limited, but it’s far from clear that Israel will attack in the first place. Cyber attacks like 2010’s Stuxnet virus have proven to be very effective without the risks of open war.

So I guess the answer is that Iran will do the most it possibly can, short of inviting a massive re-retaliation from Israel and short of drawing in the United States. In other words, Iran will do the most they perceive that can get away with without inviting an existential threat to the regime.

This raises the questions of what level of retaliation from Iran would Israel be willing to accept, and how close Iran is in its estimates of what that level is. Any misjudgment on either side could result in a rapid escalation.

Personally, I think Israel will forgo an attack on Iran and just stick to creating viruses and assassination top Iranian scientists. No one- not the US, not Israel, not Hizballah, not Hamas, and not Iran- wants this.

The exception might be the Saudis, who would love to see Iran’s clock turned back a few years.

That’s my two cents. What do you think?

19 07 2011
Dr. Bashar Assad

The crisis in Syria is deepening and the Assad regime is fighting for its life. The rhythm of the revolution is familiar: The state cracks down on demonstrators throughout the week, inevitably committing some new outrage on its citizens; rage builds and explodes on Friday after prayers; repeat as necessary.

The state’s crackdown seems more futile with each passing week. The Alawite grip on power in Syria seems to be slipping away and the events could foreshadow a similar path in Lebanon.

Imagine a future where Lebanon’s Shia have managed to conquer Lebanon with brute force. The situation seems hardly possible, but Syria faced a similar situation forty years ago. Syria’s Alawites, who comprise only 15% of the population, managed to subdue the nation under Hafez Assad in 1970.

It’s not impossible to imagine something similar in Lebanon. One thousand reasons could be given why this would never happen, but surely the same could be said of Syria all those years ago. While success is unlikely, an attempt is possible.

The Shia are Lebanon’s largest minority, and as such they wield significant political power. Beyond that, Hizballah is considered to be the most powerful fighting force in the country. They have strongholds in the south and in the southern suburbs of Beirut, but do not always feel at home in the cosmopolitan capital.

Lebanon’s Shia for years occupied the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum. Long ago they realized that the only way they would get anything in Lebanon is if they took it with force, as the merchant-class Christians and Sunnis in Beirut would never give up anything willingly. This is the genesis of the Amal Movement in the 1970’s, and later Hizballah.

While it’s impossible to know whether Hizballah will ever gain a monopoly on power in Lebanon, perhaps we can learn something about what their trajectory might look like by considering the Alawite experience in Syria. Consider the following excerpt from a report from the International Crisis Group, “The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution”:

Yet, the sectarian survival instinct upon which the regime relies could backfire. The most die-hard within the security apparatus might well be prepared to fight till the bitter end. But the majority will find it hard to keep this up. After enough of this mindless violence, this same sectarian survival instinct could push them the other way.

After centuries of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Sunni majority, Alawites and other religious minorities concluded that their villages within relatively inaccessible mountainous areas offered the only genuine sanctuary.

They are unlikely to believe their safety is ensured in the capital (where they feel like transient guests), by the Assad regime (which they view as a temporary, historical anomaly), or through state institutions (which they do not trust). When they begin to feel that the end is near, Alawites might not fight to the last man. They might well return to the mountains. They might well go home.

Hassan Nasrallah

Partly due to Hizballah’s helps, Lebanon’s Shia have come a long way over the past 40 years. Today the sect wields real power, both politically and militarily. The can bring down the government, as they did this year, and they can take over the capital, which they did in 2008.

But something doesn’t seem right. Hizballah’s actions are becoming more aggressive towards the state, especially since the indictments in the Hariri Tribunal were made known. This week, Hassan Nasrallah announced that the state would never be able to arrest members of Hizballah.

Nasrallah has been vocal in his support for Syria, which badly exposes him as a hypocrite who is grossly out of touch with the Arab tide of history. This was after proclaiming support for protestors in Tunisia and Egypt.

He has also maintained steadfast support for Iran, which also continues to oppress its citizens. Because of these patently opportunistic and self-serving stances, Hizballah’s credibility on the Arab street has to be plummeting, particularly amongst Sunni Arabs.

How long can this keep up? Can Hizballah count on the unconditional support of the common Shia? Is there a limit to what they will accept? Hizballah’s support for authoritarian regimes, coupled with its ultra-aggressive posturing at home, will only lead to growing isolation for the group, and the Shia by extension.

The common enemy in the Middle East used to be the United States, which had supported the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali for decades. But in 2011, Arabs realized that instead of getting the United States to abandon its support for the region’s dictators, they had to remove the dictators themselves. And they’re doing right now.

Suddenly, corrupt and oppressive regimes became the enemy (whether they supported the US or not) and Hizballah found itself on the wrong side of history. With the region’s political calculus undergoing such significant changes, it follows that Hizballah would alter its strategies accordingly. But they didn’t and in the process revealed themselves to be little more than an outpost of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, beholden to the Ayatollah instead of their constituents.

The question then becomes whether we will see any daylight developing between Hizballah and the “average Shia”. It’s not clear how unconditional support is for Hizballah amongst the Shia, but there are signs of cracks developing. The downfall of the group’s financial chief, penetration by Israeli spies, support for brutal regimes in Iran and Syria, isolation from Sunnis, and isolation from the world in general… both the group and the sect are under tremendous pressure.

The whole situation seems to be coming to a head. There are just too many highly-volatile moving pieces. It’s likely that Hizballah can count on its sectarian constituents if push comes to shove; the Shia won’t have any choice. The shoves will be coming from the Sunnis and the Shia will likely close ranks and band together in the event of a civil conflict.

But it is unclear how far rank and file Shia will go in support of the Party of God. Perhaps a look at the fate of Syria’s Alawites over the last 40 years can give some clues.