The Obama administration has long held out hope that Vladmir Putin would eventually withdraw his support for Bashar al-Assad. After a suicide bombing in Damascus killed several members of Assad’s inner circle, President Obama again called upon his Russian counterpart to assist in Assad’s ouster. And once again, Putin refused.Putin’s obstinacy should not come as a surprise, according to Zaki Laïdi, professor of international relations at Sciences-Po in Paris. Laïdi believes that the U.S. shouldn’t expect Moscow to change its tune on Syria—not now, and not ever.Laïdi spells out Moscow’s geopolitical calculations about Assad’s downfall: it could be followed by an Islamist victory, which could radicalize the Russian Caucasus; it would leave Russia’s southern flank exposed to an emboldened Turkey; and it would remove Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East.But what is ultimately driving the Russian response to the Syrian crisis, says Laïdi, is domestic politics:
At stake here, beyond Syria, is the restoration of Russian power in relation to the west. . . .In Moscow’s eyes, the west used UN Resolution 1973 on Libya to get rid of an unpopular regime, and its success was unwelcome. Russians consider help to people struggling against oppressive leaders as a façade to hide ulterior political or commercial motives. What matters to them is that the international system should rest on the sovereignty of states. As Russia declines and falls behind the west and China, its leaders are increasingly tempted to base their political identity on their opposition to the west.
Moscow will keep running interference in order to deter the west from regime change, be it in Syria or elsewhere. Even Obama’s vaunted powers of persuasion can’t change that.