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  1. International
5 April 2022

What Assad can teach Putin about surviving international isolation

The Syrian regime has been partially rehabilitated, and it doesn't even have Russia's natural resources to bargain with.

By Elizabeth Tsurkov

European leaders have vowed to impose further sanctions on Russia after the appearance of images from Bucha of bound Ukrainian civilians being killed by Russian forces. These would be in addition to the sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine, which the US treasury secretary called “unprecedented”. In fact, they are less severe than those imposed at present on Syria or previously on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — and in neither of these cases did economic pressure force the regime to curtail its warmongering.

The Middle Eastern dictatorships may appear to differ significantly from Russia but there are major commonalities. All rely on a combination of repression of the general population, while permitting massive corruption within the higher echelons of the regime, ensuring the loyalty of those who could pose an internal risk by orchestrating a coup. Economic sanctions seek to compel leaders to fundamentally alter policies in which they are invested. However, their logic breaks down in the case of kleptocracies, whose leaders have stolen enough to live extremely comfortably. These leaders have confidence in the ability of the state’s repressive and propaganda organs, whose own cadres are well compensated and allowed to pilfer, to protect them from a popular uprising.

The case of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the closest Middle Eastern ally of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, provides a telling example. Similar to the Russian regime, the Syrian kleptocracy is dominated by the security services and billionaire cronies, now all sanctioned to the hilt. The Syrian regime became an international pariah after the outbreak of a popular uprising in 2011, to which it responded with extreme brutality. Multiple world leaders spoke about Assad having to step down and levied suffocating sanctions on Syria’s economy. Yet the regime refused to back down and maintained its goals of retaking all Syrian territory while not enacting a single meaningful reform.

The Syrian regime appeared to have been on track to regain all rebel-held territory. However, in February 2020 Turkey forcefully signalled that it would not permit regime forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, to advance any further in the northwest, displacing in the process more than a million civilians who rushed toward the Turkish border. Since then, the conflict in Syria has been frozen: the Assad regime may dream of returning to rule over the whole country, but it controls less than 70 per cent of Syria’s land and less than half of its pre-war population. The areas remaining outside of regime control are able to survive under the protection of Turkey in the northwest and the International Counter-Isis Coalition in the northeast. Since 2018, when Russian mercenaries and Iran-backed militiamen attempted to invade northeast Syria and were met with overwhelming force by the Coalition, they have not tried again.

Similarly, the Kremlin has no record of being swayed by economic pressure. Sanctions levied by the West in 2014 following the occupation of Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, clearly did not compel the Kremlin to retreat. While Russia has not formally annexed the two areas of the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, it has begun a process of Russification. Under the formal leadership of Russian-backed puppet rulers, the Kremlin imposed a Russian curriculum and its currency on the occupied areas, and began giving out Russian passports to the Ukrainian citizens living there. Prior to the latest invasion, Western leaders personally conveyed to Putin that if he were to invade Ukraine, Russia would face crushing sanctions. The Russian regime appears to have priced this in, to an extent, by building up a massive foreign currency reserve and trying to create a system to bypass the global Swift banking system from which it is now partly shut out.

Similar to the Syrian regime, Russia’s leadership believes that time and global disunity are on its side. Russia’s richness in natural resources, European dependence on its gas and Russia’s large consumer market all make it costly for those imposing sanctions. The Syrian economy is minuscule compared to Russia’s, and Syria is not a major power even in the Middle East, yet the Syrian leadership’s belief that even if it makes no reforms countries will eventually give up on their policy of isolation has been partially vindicated. In recent years the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and now Oman have fully or partially normalised relations with Syria. Assad has even begun to travel abroad again; he recently visited the UAE, his first trip to an Arab country since the uprising began 11 years ago. The Kremlin, sitting atop a land rich with gas and oil, is probably thinking that the reversal in the Western position will be even quicker. Russia’s regime will recall the experience of the EU weapons embargo, imposed following the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, which multiple EU countries subverted to profit from supplying the Russian military.

Indeed, Russia has only scaled down its belligerence in Syria, Ukraine and Libya due to costly military losses. In Libya, Turkish-developed Bayraktar 2 drones were able to inflict heavy losses on Russian-backed forces, halting and reversing their offensive on Tripoli. The Turkish drones were able to destroy Russia’s vaunted and pricey Pantsir and Buk air defence systems and, adding insult to injury, Turkey made sure to publicise humiliating footage of the strikes. In Ukraine, the threat of crushing sanctions did not do the trick. Ukrainians had to kill thousands of Russia’s soldiers and destroy hundreds of their armoured vehicles for the Kremlin to realise it simply did not have the forces to capture Kyiv and orchestrate regime change as planned.

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Mindful of the real temptation to ease sanctions on Russia and the history of failures to effect policy change in the Kremlin through economic means, Western leaders ought to prioritise the tool that has proven effective time and again. If supplied properly, Ukrainian forces can not only reverse the gains the Russian military has made in southern and eastern Ukraine, but also inflict enough damage to convince Putin that starting wars of aggression is a bad idea. Economic sanctions, which hurt ordinary Russians, including those who oppose the war but are too terrified to speak up, are hardly the more benign choice in this conflict.

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