Russians in Syria won’t be canaries in the coal mine

David Meyers Former White House Staffer
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As the Syrian crisis rages on, all eyes remain fixed on Russia. Vladimir Putin’s autocracy has prevented any meaningful action at the United Nations, and continues to help President Assad murder his own people. In fact, Assad may have fallen already had it not been for Russia’s support.

So it’s understandable that experts have been closely monitoring the activity of the thousands of Russians living in Syria. These experts rightly believe that any full-scale evacuation would signal Moscow’s belief that Assad was about to fall.

According to news reports, Russia recently made a new effort to bring some citizens back to the motherland. And the recent explosion near the Russian embassy might fuel speculation about a mass evacuation. But a full-scale evacuation is unlikely, no matter how dire the situation in Syria becomes.

A Russian evacuation would embolden the Syrian rebels and their supporters, and could hasten Assad’s downfall. Therefore, given how much Putin has invested in Syria, a full-scale Russian evacuation before Assad falls probably won’t happen — even if it means that thousands of Russian citizens will die as a result.

Over the past two years, Putin has shown a steadfast commitment to President Assad’s survival. Moscow continues to fund and arm Assad’s military, even as the conflict’s casualties approach 100,000. Russia has blocked every serious resolution in the United Nations Security Council, and has undermined negotiations with Syria’s rebels (by insisting, for instance, on a negotiated settlement that leaves Assad in power).

For Putin, supporting Assad offers many benefits. First, it allows him to continue his campaign against America. While Putin has long been hostile to the United States, his antagonism reached new heights during his re-election campaign. Putin blamed America for the mass protests that were organized against him, and has since declared open season on the United States (even if it comes at the expense of Russian orphans and securing Russia’s nuclear stockpile).

Further, Putin has used the Syrian crisis to cast himself as a major player on the world stage. By opposing serious action to cripple Assad (or end Iran’s nuclear program), Putin has shown that Russia is still an international “player.” Russia’s reputation rests on its ability to stand as a stalwart against the United States and Europe.

If Syria collapsed, despite years of Russian support, money, and arms, Moscow would lose the confidence of its autocratic allies, and Putin would lose the confidence of his supporters at home. This is why Putin is unlikely to order a mass evacuation from Syria, no matter the cost.

A Russian evacuation would signal that Assad’s end is in sight. It would embolden Syria’s rebels to step up their war effort, might free the flow of arms into Syria, and could even lead the United States and Europe to take a more active role in supporting the rebels.

During the Soviet era, the U.S.S.R. often evacuated its citizens from danger zones, regardless of the consequences. On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, for example, the Soviets evacuated their citizens from Egypt. This ended up being a key factor in finally convincing the Israelis that Egypt was indeed going to launch a surprise attack.

But the world should not expect the same of Putin. Putin’s commitment to Syria, and his appalling human rights record, suggests that he values Assad’s survival more than the lives of Russian citizens in Syria.

If Putin truly cared for his people, he would not be imprisoning and murdering them for exercising such basic rights as the freedom to assemble and petition the government. If Putin truly cared for his people, he would not let them be tortured and murdered in government prisons. And if he truly cared for his people, he would not allow them to be abducted abroad, brought back to Russia, and imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

Putin has also shown indifference to mass murder; in fact, he has actively supported it by arming the Syrian regime. He also continues to support Iran and other despotic countries that fund acts of terror around the world. As Ariel Ben Solomon recently put it, Putin continues to support and fund terrorists abroad, while fighting them at home in Chechnya.

If Putin does not order an evacuation and Russians die as a result, he might face some backlash at home. But he would undoubtedly place the blame on his go-to boogeyman: the United States. He’d blame America for funding and fueling the Syrian rebels (despite the fact that America has undermined them), just as he does whenever anything goes wrong in Russia.

Putin wants Assad to survive, and it’s hard to imagine he would put the lives of a few thousand Russians over his political ambitions. Therefore, the Russians in Syria, like the Russians in Russia, will likely be forced to pay the price for Premier Putin.

David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.