Russia’s defense of Syria’s Assad is overdetermined. (And don’t believe for a minute its claims that it is not protecting Assad: walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck-it’s a duck.)
There are military-diplomatic reasons. Syria is a long-term ally in the region-Russia’s last one. Syria provides Russia with its only port in the Med. Russia has legitimate fears of another jihadi outpost, this one at the heart of the Middle East.
There are domestic political reasons: in a reprise of its role in the Holy Alliance, Russia’s extreme fear of an popular overthrow of the government leads it support any regime facing popular opposition, no matter how odious that regime might be.
But a big reason can only be described as psychological, and rooted in Russia’s obsession with the Cold War, and in particular its loss in the Cold War to the US,. Recent Russian squealing about the US’s alleged lapsing into a Cold War mentality (e.g., the Magnitsky Act) is so much projection that reveals just who really thinks about the Cold War non-stop. More generally, Russia is obsessed with respect, and regaining its great power status.
Putin for one marinates in these obsessions.
One effect of this obsession is the pronounced tendency to oppose reflexively anything that the United States supports, or that Russia even suspects it might support. Hence, the fact that the US is attempting to orchestrate Assad’s ouster is sufficient for Putin and Lavrov and the rest of the gang to oppose it.
Ironically, in so doing they are jeopardizing Russia’s more objectively-based reasons for wanting to maintain a foothold in Syria. By creating obstacles to every attempt for the UN or NATO to get rid of Assad and transition to some other government, Russia (assisted by China) has ensured that the conflict has become a protracted war to the knife in which the most radical forces-jihadi forces, in particular-have decisive advantages. Given its longstanding relationship with all aspects of the Syrian military and security forces, and its connection with Assad, if anyone could have brokered an outcome that would have avoided the bloodshed and chaos that have occurred in the last two years, and which will almost get worse when the inevitable comes to pass, it was Russia. But it dug in its heels, permitting Assad to hang on, and to escalate, and to make a cataclysmic end almost certain.
When this end occurs, Russia’s influence in Syria will be nil, and its image in Syria and the Middle East generally will be deeply blackened. It can kiss Tartus good bye. There will be a major jihadi enclave that much closer to Chechnya.
If it had not responded so reflexively to western initiatives to find some way of getting Assad out, and indeed, if it had utilized its connections and influence, it could have preserved something. Instead it will lose everything. Even overlooking the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding, and the dangers that a post-civil war Syria will pose to its people and the region, and just looking from a purely self-interested Russian perspective, Putin and Lavrov played this badly. The opposite game will prove very expensive for Russia. Yes, the US would have gained from Assad’s departure, especially at the outset (not so clear now, given how things have gone, but his eventual departure is inevitable). In the Russian zero sum world view, given the salience of the US in the Russian mind, that was sufficient reason to fight for Assad to the bitter end. But it will prove to be a grievous wound, and an entirely self-inflicted one