06/17/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2012

Russia's Wobbly Stance on Syria

Everybody's stance on Syria is rather wobbly these days, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's recent editorial explaining his government's policy should raise a few eyebrows.

According to Lavrov the objective of a majority of countries (at least rhetorically) is to encourage "the aspirations of the Arab peoples for a better life, democracy and prosperity." How to get there is up for debate. The U.S., France and other western countries are pushing for more international involvement in the conflict, while Russia is calling for less.

Russia, like any other nation, has a responsibility to reach its own foreign policy decisions, and neutrality may very well be in their best interest. But don't let Lavrov's well-written analysis trick you completely.

In many ways Russia's hesitance to join the international condemnation of the Syrian regime makes sense. Syria is politically messy at best and more likely a powder keg. As Lavrov points out, Syria is complex, sectarian, and events there could spill over regionally. Moreover, intervention in the region has rarely led to idyllic outcomes. It therefore seems reasonable for Russia to want to steer clear and let Syrians chart their own path.

That said, Lavrov's conclusion rests on two fundamentally flawed assumptions: that Syrians are presently in a position to freely determine their own future, and that Russia is a neutral actor.

Lavrov claims that, "Russia is not a defender of the current regime in Damascus and has no political, economic or other reasons for becoming one." He returns to this point repeatedly throughout the piece in an attempt to paint Russia as a neutral and objective observer. In reality though, Russia has plenty of reasons to shelter the Syrian government.

First and foremost, Syria is one of Russia's few remaining allies in the region and home to the Port of Tartus, which is "Russia's only military base outside the old Soviet Union."

Earlier this year, in a display of power, Russia sent the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier along with a few other warships to Tartus for three-day visit. More recently, they apparently deployed a small number of combat forces to guard the port.

Russia has proven willing to tolerate quite a bit of Syrian indiscretion in order to maintain its military and political position. The Russian stance toward Syria is somewhat similar to the American one on Bahrain, where the U.S. fifth fleet is stationed.

Russia also has significant economic ties to Syria. Future military contracts are worth roughly $4 billion, while Russian companies are invested in projects totaling five times that amount ($20 billion). These ventures include energy sector exploration, air defense systems, jets sales, anti-ship missiles, and refurbished attack helicopters. Trade and shipments have continued during the current crisis.

The main reason though that Russia would support Syria is to avoid unrest in Iran, a country likely to feel strong reverberations from an Assad departure. This would strike a much larger blow to Russian (and Chinese) interests than regime change in Syria. The perceived need to prevent a domino effect and counter U.S. pressure on Iran have led Russia to insist that Iran be part of the any international efforts on Syria.

Russia is clearly playing the same "regional geopolitical game" that Lavrov accuses the west of engaging in. With Assad still in office, one could even say they're winning.

The other major fallacy of Lavrov's argument lies closer to the heart of the debate.

Lavrov states that "it is the Syrian people themselves who choose the political system and leadership of their country." Ideally this would mean that all Syrians are able to openly and meaningfully choose their political future without the fear of injury, arrest or death.

If this had been the case in Syria at the beginning of 2011, there would have been little need for an uprising in the first place. To assume, as Lavrov does, that the ideal will ever be attainable while the Assad family is in charge becomes more ludicrous by the day.

Lavrov's points to the fact that Syria's "level of civil freedoms [is] immeasurably higher than that of some of the countries who are now trying to give lessons in democracy to Damascus" as evidence that free choice is alive and well in Syria. True, Syrians enjoy a number of civil rights (women drive, no religious police, etc.) but Lavrov quickly conflates those freedoms with democracy.

On human and political rights -- ones closely linked to liberal democracies -- Syria's record is nothing shy of atrocious. The security forces have long been notoriously ruthless, legal and illegal political repression is rampant (constitutional restrictions, the Damascus Spring, etc.), and vote rigging is commonplace. Not to mention that the regime occasionally directs the army at its own people, as it did in Hama in 1982 and is presently doing on a regular basis.

Records of varies abuses can be found at Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, Freedom House, Amnesty International, IFES and other watchdogs.

In short, rather than drawing on popular support, the Ba'ath Party and the Assad family have relied on manipulation, intimidation and often brutal tactics to remain in power for the last four decades. The most recent crisis is over 13 months old, and despite promises of reform, the death toll now tops 13,000 (including around 1,000 children) with no end in sight.

Given the regime's history of suppressing dissent, high mutual levels of mistrust and the failure of Annan plan, sincere dialogue between the sides appears to be a pipe dream at this point.

So, where does this leave us?

The fact that Russia undoubtedly has a stake in the political game, and Syrians continue to be unable to truly dictate their own political future should make one skeptical that Lavrov's plan can achieve its stated goal.

At the same time, rejecting Russian complacency does not validate the hyper-interventionist answer that certain members of the opposition, commentators, and western politicians have come to. That argument rests on its own line of dubious logic.

What is safe to surmise is that neither western military intervention, nor sitting on the sidelines as civilians continue to die, are tenable long-term solutions. The answer lies somewhere in the middle of an increasingly unpleasant continuum.

Alternatives such as further sanctions, humanitarian zones, regionally led pressure, and managed transitions have all been put forward. Russia has been publicly unwilling to entertain any of them.

However, there are signs that could be changing. Despite Lavrov's denial, it is still unclear whether Russia has begun private discussions with the U.S. about what a post-Assad Syria might look like. More concretely, Russia has reportedly offered Assad exile and allowed him to transfer six billion dollars to Russian accounts.

For now though, Lavrov's policy rationale remains among the most tangible and sweeping yet given by a Russian official. It is clever and insightful, but don't let it fool you.