Russia Refuses To Change Its Position On Syria
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, as we just heard, Russia has stood its ground refusing to join Western powers in their approach to Syria. But Moscow has indicated recently that it's not wedded to Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Mark Katz came by to talk more about this with us. He's a Russia expert and professor of government and politics at George Mason University's Department of Public and International Affairs.
MARK KATZ: Thank you.
GREENE: So tell me what you make of what you've heard from the Russians when it comes to Syria. Has there been some sort of change in approach?
KATZ: I don't think there has been a significant change in approach, that a lot of people see a change in tone. But I think that, in fact, this change of tone is supposed to indicate that they're being reasonable, that they understand that there are some flaws with the Assad regime. But the basic message is that the Syrian opposition are also bad guys, and that the Russians understand this if the Americans don't.
GREENE: They're talking about what sounds like a broader community of countries dealing with this than the United States wants. They've even talked about bringing Iran as a partner in confronting Syria. I mean, what do you make of this from Russia?
KATZ: I think they're simply trying to delay any kind of action by suggesting that Iran should come in. They know full well that the U.S. and Israel would object very strongly, as well as out Western countries. I think that they are trying to do is to drag the so-called peace process out long enough so that the Syrian government could, in fact, destroy the opposition.
GREENE: What's behind that? Let's talk about, more broadly, the Russia-Syria relationship. There are arms agreements. How important is that relationship, and is that behind Russia's thinking right now?
KATZ: It's not the most important thing. I mean, the level of arms that they sell - certainly by our standards - is pretty small, I think. They, you know, also have some commercial interests. There's some oil investment. More important is the naval base at the port of Tartus on the Syrian coast. But I don't think that these are the most important things.
You know, Syria is the last ally they have in this region. If they lose that ally, they really have no influence in the Middle East. And I think that part of the motive is simply, you know, anti-American, that they want to thwart the United States. They felt that they were taken advantage of with regard to Libya. Also, I think that they feel that the West simply misunderstands what's happening, that if the Assad regime goes, there will be chaos, that radical Sunni Islamists will come to power. They're looking at this in the worst possible terms. They're slightly hysterical about this issue. And so I don't see them giving in.
GREENE: You said the memories of what happened in Libya. Are the Russians worried that that's where we're headed with Syria?
KATZ: To tell you the truth, I don't think that they think we're going to do that. In other words, that for the Russians, they've had enough experience with us that they know that when we're really serious, that we will act outside of the Security Council. And so I think that what they see is that the Obama administration is, in many respects, hiding behind the Russians - in other words, that we can't do anything because the Russians and the Chinese won't approve a resolution. Well, that never stopped us in the past. So I think that they don't see a real cost for hanging tough on this.
GREENE: Where do we go from here? Do the U.S. and Russians just keep sort of disagreeing, finding areas where they can talk about little agreements on Syria? I mean, just the rhetoric continues, or do we come to some moment?
KATZ: I don't think that we're going to get to any, you know, decisive difference. One has to remember that one of the things that the Russians see as favoring their position is that the Israelis share their concern about the downfall of the Assad regime.
So they see themselves as in the - you know, if they just continue to do what they do, the situation will resolve itself in the favor of the Assad regime, and that Russia will be better off, Israel will be better off and that even the West will actually be better off, even though it doesn't want to acknowledge that. But the fact that the West isn't doing much seriously about Syria suggests to them that, in fact, maybe we understand that logic, as well.
GREENE: Professor, thank so much for stopping by.
KATZ: Well, thank you for having me.
GREENE: That's Mark Katz. He's a professor in the Department of Public and International affairs at George Mason University, and also author of a new book, "Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.