Why Russia backs Assad: a view from Russia’s anti-imperialist left

The editors of the Russian socialist website openleft.ru analyse why Russia is now openly moving troops into Syria to support the Assad regime.

Cartoon by the activists of Occupied Kafranbel.
Cartoon by the activists of Occupied Kafranbel.

A whole range of evidence [also here] indicates that Russia is activating its military aid for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad up to the point of direct involvement of Russian troops in the Syrian conflict. Why now in particular, and what lies behind this?

Taken individually, neither military and political ties, nor economic ties between Russia and the Syrian regime are sufficient to explain the stubborn support for Assad from the Russian Federation, which had become the source of a serious conflict with the West even before the events in Ukraine. Of course, Assad’s regime is now the only reliable ally of Russia in the region, the loss of which would make it unable to continue playing an important role in the Middle East.

Supposedly, another factor was the [former] control of Syria over the transit of Iraqi and Arabian oil – of fundamental importance for Russia as one of the world’s largest oil exporters. In turn, the desire to seize this control played a major role in defining the anti-Assad position of Turkey, Israel and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. However, it is telling that Saudi Arabia received a decisive rejection when it completely openly suggested to Russia that it cut off its support for Assad in return for a lowering of the tempo of its oil production – which could have then put the break on tumbling global oil prices.

Concern about the rise of radical Islamism in the region, and beyond to the North Caucasus, is also not a sufficient explanation. Many analysts see Russia’s support of the Syrian regime as having a significance that goes well beyond the Syrian conflict itself: by opposing the attempts to depose Assad, the Kremlin is opposing the very possibility of a “regime change” sanctioned by international institutions, as it considers that the next target of such a “regime change” could be itself.

The Russian government’s position on Syria, radically different from that of western governments, has on occasion brought benefits for its reputation abroad: such as when Putin’s column was published in the New York Times, making a plea against military intervention in Syria, and criticising notions of American exceptionalism. However, on the whole, Russia has been more on the defensive.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Middle East changed, and the rise of ISIS enabled things that had formerly seemed impossible, such as the partial normalisation of US relations with Iran. So the Assad regime also stopped being less unacceptable to the US. In this context, Putin appears to have decided to go on the offensive – perhaps not in the literal sense of sending troops into Syria, but at the very least in the sense of backstairs talks with Washington, using the new Russian airbase in Syria’s Latakia as an excuse.

According to Bloomberg, this new tactic may well bear fruit – at least some of those working at the White House believe the priority should be widening the alliance against ISIS; they accept the activation of Russian help for Assad as an already established fact and are even prepared to work with Russia in an aerial campaign against the Islamic State. By the looks of it, this is exactly what Putin and [foreign minister] Lavrov are hoping for.

On the whole the Kremlin’s tactical course can be seen as a continuation of its struggle for a “fairer multipolar world”, in which international relations are not regulated by normative principles of liberalism and Human Rights, but through the mutual recognition of interests and cooperation on concrete questions. It is precisely on these conditions that, through a pragmatic coalition in Syria, Russia is attempting to reintegrate itself into the world order, simultaneously changing the rules of the game.

So the real consequences of Russian foreign policy, despite Russia’s constant criticisms of the “hypocrisy of humanitarian interventions”, are no better than the same humanitarian interventions. The victims of the Syrian regime are far greater than those of ISIS. Support for Assad is support for a dictator who has turned the military apparatus of his country into an effective machine for the obliteration of its own population. However much Lavrov and [Putin’s press secretary] Peskov make passive-aggressive criticisms of “western hypocrisy”, Russia is at least as responsible for what is happening in Syria as western states.

And the Kremlin’s demonstrative refusal to take any part in solving the refugee crisis is truly hypocritical. By suggesting that the countries of the EU deal with the consequences of a crisis which it has done so much to create in Syria, Putin’s Russia feels it has the “last laugh”. The drama of 100,000s of people losing their homes is presented in Peskov’s announcements as an elegant lesson, subordinated to the Kremlin’s foreign policy towards its “western partners”.

Translated by Nick Evans.


  1. […] The editors of the Russian socialist website openleft.ru analyse why Russia is now openly moving troops into Syria to support the Assad regime. Translated by Translated by Nick Evans republished from RS21.  […]

  2. I think what Nick is getting at is right. For too long parts of the left have followed the adage ‘My enemies enemy is my friend’ which has bound it to a self-denying ordinance of compromise and silence as well as the trap of having to decide which imperialist player is the lesser evil. The apparent contradictions and seemingly counter-intuitive moves should not blind us to the reality that in every game of chess, faux moves of chivalry are often used- along with the quite ruthless sacrifice of pawns- as mere tactical shifts in a bigger and more ruthless power game. For an insight into this game of double standards I have attempted to outline some of the factors and what is at stake in a recent rs21 website article; ‘As the Middle East goes nuclear, global warming goes critical’. but at every stage we have to realise that these ‘games’ are being played out by contending ruling classes over and above the interests of their working classes and even the future of our planet.

  3. This has now been followed up by an interesting article by Ilya Budraitskis: http://openleft.ru/?p=6894. The new article develops the point made here about how Russian official propaganda attacks “western hypocrisy” (fake universalism, liberal interventionism, bomber humanitarianism) to the Kremlin’s “force of character” (its defence of its interests, of multipolarity, against US hegemony). Ilya argues against the tendency of Russian liberals to contort themselves defending western imperial powers from the charge of hypocrisy, but makes a distinction between two types of critique of hypocrisy: a right-wing and a left-wing one. The right-wing critique demands a break with hypocrisy in order to defend inequality and naked force; the left-wing critique aims to hold power to account and win real, rather than formal equality for all.

    The dominant Carl Schmitt notes in contemporary Russian state propaganda are presumably not a coincidence. Without an ideological alternative to the model of neoliberal democracy on which US hegemony is based, it makes a virtue of its realism and exposure of US hypocrisy, just as right-wing intellectuals seeking a greater role for Germany in the interwar years did, before their full-on embrace of Nazism. This kind of anti-universalist realism was always a sub-theme in Stalinist propaganda, but it came accompanied with a particular universalist hypocrisy of its own.

    Now that has gone, and Boris Kagarlitsky sits in bars with fascists, while Stop the War central office sends out emails with paragraphs such as the following:

    “Cynically, the warmongers in Whitehall say they want to stop the exodus of Syrians – by bombing their country. Their strategy looks more like chaos. They say they want to defeat Isis but they simultaneously want to defeat the government of President Assad, which is the main opponent of Isis in Syria. “

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