In response to questions submitted by Russia Direct subscribers, a Russian foreign policy expert comments on the implications of Syria for both the U.S. and Russia.

Video by Pavel Gazdyuk

Russia Direct continues to answer our readers’ questions. This time, our readers submitted questions about Russia’s strategy towards Syria: Why is the Russian leadership aligned with Assad? If Assad should be overthrown, what impact would it have on the daily lives of most Russians? Is the general population of Russia concerned about the situation in Syria? Could Russia survive without Syria?”

These questions are particularly timely, given the growing consensus that Syria is now one of the most important foreign policy issues facing Washington and Moscow. As Nikolay Surkov, an associate professor in the Department of Oriental Studies at MGIMO-University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations), points out, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will almost certainly discuss Syria with their Russian counterparts Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu in Washington today. “No matter what they’ll tell journalists after the meeting,” he added.

“But I do not expect any changes for at least several months until we have some kind of change on the ground, for example, some decisive victories of the Syrian military.”

He believes that in the future, it will be Russia and the United States who will decide the future of the conflict. “Therefore, without the consent of the Syrian parties, without their readiness to engage in political dialogue, Russia and the United States can do very little.”

Russia Direct: Please explain why the Russian leadership is aligned with Assad.

Nikolay Surkov: The Russian leadership is not actually idealizing President Assad. If you recall, at the very beginning of the crisis, the Russian leadership even called for democratic reforms in Syria for free elections and things like that. But for Russia and, especially, for President Putin, Mr. Assad is a minor evil in comparison with the perspective of Syria turning into a terrorist or jihadist hub. Besides, there is a danger of overall destabilization in the region which is also unacceptable for Russia. The only way out of this situation is to support Assad and to wait for the regime to evolve politically, not as a result of a civil war, but as a result of the development of civil society and political reforms.      

RD: If Assad should be overthrown, what would Russian citizens lose in the normal functions of their daily personal lives? 

N.S.: At first glance, daily life of Russian citizens will not change. But just imagine the situation if Syria becomes a terrorist hub or a jihadist state. In that case, jihadism will sooner or later spread around the region and later hit neighboring regions, too. And Russia is not very far from the Middle East. Besides, many Islamic militants come to the Northern Caucasus and fight there, so Russia will have an influx of foreign fighters and foreign terrorists. Russian citizens, from this perspective, will face the threat of terrorism once again. So this is the danger.       

RD: Does the general population of Russia concern itself with the situation in Syria?

N.S.: Many ordinary citizens follow the events in Syria. Generally, the population is sympathetic with the Syrians who suffer as a result of the conflict. Besides, many people are convinced that the whole crisis is the result of American intrigues and the American desire to destroy a regime and government that remains defiant at attempts to promote U.S. hegemony in the region. So, the Russian population is really concerned with the situation in Syria, but it is not supportive of the current policy of the United States.      

RD: Could Russia survive without Syria?

N.S.: This question is a bit tricky. Of course, Russia can survive without Syria. There is no great importance to Syria. Though we have a naval base in Syria, it’s not necessary for our fleet like it was during the time of the Cold War. This base is not really necessary. Speaking about Russia’s economic interest in Syria, there are some investments, approximately $1 - 2 billion. There are arms exports. In comparison with China or India, Syria is a minor importer of Russian arms. So, Russia can easily survive without Syria in the near future. However, if we consider this from the perspective of regional chaos and regional instability and the growth of jihadism and radical Islam, there will be dangers in the future.