Russia in the Islamic World
Why does Russia so stubbornly support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad? This question is frequently discussed in Western media and political circles. Many American and European analysts consider Moscow’s policy a “phantom of the Cold War” or some kind of dictatorial solidarity. But realism plays a more important role in Moscow’s reasoning than anti-American hostility.
For Russia, Syria is a three-dimensional phenomenon. The first two dimensions are better known: Russia, along with China, has a long-running dispute with the West about the relationship between sovereignty and intervention in the domestic political process. That controversy has not been sparked by the current Syrian crisis; instead, it dates back to the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Secondly, Moscow has economic and geopolitical interests in Syria, ranging from business contracts to Russia’s only naval facility on the Mediterranean Sea in Tartus.
The Caucasus Question
The third dimension of Russia’s approach to Syria relates to the situation in the North Caucasus, the most problematic region of the country. From the moment Russia launched its first military operation in Chechnya in late 1994, Moscow not only faced the problem of the domestic legitimacy of the campaign but also was confronted with the challenge of minimizing the operation’s risk to its foreign policy. In the case of Chechnya, Russia was taking military action in a region inhabited by numerous Muslims, who were connected to the wider Muslim world through many networks. For the first time since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Russia—the successor state of the Soviet Union—risked being isolated in the Islamic world.