Why Russia is Isolating Itself and Allowing Syria's Bashar al-Assad "A License to Kill"

A year ago last summer, I wrote an article titled "From Russia with Peace: the Rise of an Unlikely Middle East Broker."I argued that Russia had boldly inserted itself into Middle East peace negotiations and positioned itself as an impartial broker with a (relatively) open and honest approach.

Yet whatever goodwill Russia had engendered over the past few years as it edged towards a more Western-friendly posture, it squandered last weekend when it charted a dangerous new course in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime. Russia's veto on the Security Council was not only wrong, it was near criminal. Yet why is Russia only now using its veto after abstaining from the Security Council votes that passed resolutions to authorize "all means necessary" to end the conflicts in the Ivory Coast or Libya?

On a basic level, Syria has been a longtime ally of Russia and the two countries have several lucrative arms agreements in place. In August, Assad visited Moscow in hopes of securing advanced weaponry (including an air-defense missile system), and just last month Syria signed on to another $550 million arms deal for Russian combat jets. The two countries had already agreed to stronger military ties back in 2008, when Assad allowed Russia permanent access to the Port of Tartus, which Russia coveted in order to establish a larger presence in the Mediterranean. 

The Security Council veto, however goes, beyond Russia's strategic relationship with Syria and points to a deeper underlying fear of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Since 2000, when Putin took office as the then-president, Russia has sought alliances with countries unfriendly to the West, particularly in the Middle East. Over the past decade, Russia has made overtures to the likes of Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran in hopes of regaining some of its Cold War prestige. 

As Russia's power and sphere of influence grew, so too did its desire to play a larger role in Western politics. Russia's grandiose plans, however, were abruptly halted by the Arab Spring, during which Russia has become unnerved as it has watched its base of support in Libya and Syria greatly erode. 

Coupled with Putin's own deep insecurities about the rising protests (the largest since the fall of Communism) against his own rule internally, Russia's veto was motivated by its dwindling influence in the Middle East and its fear that America and the West might turn on Russia due to its own increasingly unpopular authoritarian orientation. 

While such apprehension seems unfounded (it's highly unlikely the West would take on Russia), the country nevertheless is eager to stop what it sees as a crusade by the West to depose hostile world leaders under the legal protection of UN resolutions. 

In doing so, Russia has tarnished its own image, given Assad a "license to kill," and destroyed any international credibility it built up over the past few years.

Perhaps the great irony in Russia's approach, however, is that Russia and China's vetoes may in fact expedite a military operation against the regime. The Syrian opposition may come to thank Russia after all. 

Photo Credit: David Dietz