What's behind Russia's involvement in Syria and Iran? National interests.

Russia has spent political and real capital building alliances with Syria and Iran. It's not surprising that Moscow now wants to defend its allies' interests at the bargaining table.

Misha Japaridze/AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, listens to his Serbian counterpart Vuk Jeremic, unseen, during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Friday.

Remember when the world was simple and the US could just make decisions unilaterally?

Russia remembers those days too – from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 until somewhere midway through the Iraqi war – and Moscow’s foreign policy moves in the past few weeks are an indication that it wants those days to end.

In Syria, Russia has been a firm and reliable backer of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, boosting its military exports to Syria by some 600 percent over the past five years. Syria hosts Russia's only foreign military base in the Mediterranean city of Tartous. Russia has subsequently become a key player in determining whether Syria agrees to come to the negotiating table, and under what terms. Yesterday Russia indicated that it would back a mediation effort by United Nations special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan as long as it didn't include any nasty pre-conditions, such as forcing Mr. Assad to step down.

And in Iran – with whom Russia has close military and commercial ties – Russia has backed four rounds of UN sanctions, but warned that if the international community pushes Tehran too hard, and if Israel carries out threats of military strikes, then Iran will have no other recourse but to develop the very nuclear weapons that the West is so concerned about.

"The CIA and other US officials admit they now have no information about the Iranian leadership taking the political decision to produce nuclear weapons," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Moscow's Kommersant FM radio, according to Agence-France Presse. "But I am almost certain that such a decision will surely be taken after [any] strikes on Iran."

The pressure on Iran is “forcing a lot of Third World countries to pause and realize that if you have a nuclear bomb, no one will really bother you,” Mr. Lavrov said. "You might get some light sanctions, but people will always coddle you, they will court you and try to convince you of things."

It should come as a surprise to no one that Moscow wants a place at the bargaining table, particularly in countries where it has invested a great deal of capital, political and the other kind, in supporting regimes that are supportive of Russian interests. This is what nations do.

But when it comes to the twin crises in Syria and Iran, Russia’s determined efforts to stand up for Damascus and Tehran are perceived by the West as especially destabilizing and dangerous. For one thing, several of Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey, have hinted they would be willing to take their military into Syria to create a humanitarian corridor to protect refugees within Syrian territory and stanch the flow of refugees into Turkey. But that move could be seen as provocative and create other political problems. Israel, similarly, has hinted that it has a few bombs that were just made to be dropped on Iranian nuclear facilities, which Iran insists are purely for civilian energy production.

But it gets more complicated when one stops thinking of the actions of nation-states, and starts thinking about smaller but more nimble militant groups such as Hezbollah, which often have their own specific interests to protect. Both Syria and Iran are close financial and diplomatic backers of the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah, and any threat to those two regimes might be seen by Hezbollah as a threat to them as well. Hezbollah has not been shy about reminding the international community of its capabilities to act well outside the Lebanese borders. And the international community has signaled that it has received this message, loud and clear.  

“We do not know how events will unfold,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a speech in Indonesia, as reported by the Associated Press. “But we do know that we all have a responsibility to work for a resolution of this profound and extremely dangerous crisis ... a crisis that has potentially massive repercussions for the region and the world.”

So is it naïve to take Russia’s involvement in the Syrian and Iranian crises at face value, as merely an effort to persuade two regimes to seek peaceful solutions through dialogue? Perhaps. But when nations have spent time and money to develop alliances in a crucial region, it’s naïve to assume they won’t take measures to defend those interests.

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