Why Russia Supports the Brutal Syrian Regime
Russia has refused to support international sanctions against Syria despite President Assad’s brutal repression and killing of his own citizens. The Kremlin has also complained of bias by the western media against the Assad regime. So why does Russia decline to intervene in Syria and in effect prop up such a government?
In May 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev visited Damascus, the historic capital of Syria. It was a momentous event, because he was the first Russian leader to do so since the 1917 Revolution. But it was not a diplomatic mission or a social or educational visit. For shortly afterwards it was announced that Russia would supply Syria with MiG-29 fighters, truck-mounted Pantsir short-range surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery systems.
This was not an unusual contract because Russia is the major supplier of weapons to Syria. In 2007, Russia agreed to supply Syria with 24 MiG-29 SMT fighters which are expected to be delivered later this year. Since 2006, the Assad’s regime only other arms suppliers; according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) are Iran and Belarus.
Many analysts argue that the reason the Putin regime is refusing to back the West’s proposals is hard cash: Syria is paying billions of dollars to Russia for their weapons. Historically, the two countries have always been close. Until recently, Syria had a state-owned economy and shared Russia’s view of a strong public sector. It has only been in the past few years that Syria has privatised some of its state assets and embraced the market economy.
The view that Russia is backing the current Syrian regime because of lucrative arms deals is backed by two Israeli private security consultants, Yagil Beinglass and Daniel Brode. “Recent Russian arms sales to Syria are worth $4 billion, including fighter jets and advanced missiles. Russian business investments in Syria encompassing infrastructure, energy and tourism amount to nearly $20 billion”, they told the New York Times last year. “A natural gas processing plant about 200 kilometres east of Homs is being constructed by the Russian engineering company, Stroytransgaz”.
The UK has been in the forefront of criticising Syria’s vicious treatment of democratic protesters and yet has not allowed its trade with that country to dictate its policy. According to Foreign and Commonwealth Office statistics, the UK is a larger export market for Syria (after Italy, France, Saudi Arabia and Iraq) than Russia (Syria’s major imports are from China and Egypt). According to the CIA, major importers to Syria include Saudi Arabia (11.2%), China (10.1%), Turkey (7.6%), UAE (5.5%) and Italy (5.5%).
However, there could be other reasons for Russia’s support for President Assad – a suspicion and distrust of Western foreign policy in the Middle East. According to Dmitri Trenin, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Russia’s stance is more based on its conservatism and suspicion of Western expansionism than commercial factors:
“Russia’s stance on Syria is often explained in terms of Syria’s importance to Moscow. It is true that Syria is positioned in the strategic heart of the Middle East, and that Moscow’s links to the Assad family go back four decades.
“None of this, however, should be exaggerated. Syria is not an ally; Tartus is a naval resupply facility rather than a naval base; and the total value of Russia’s arms trade with Syria during the previous decade amounted to around $1.5 billion, which makes Damascus Moscow’s seventh-largest client”.
To understand Moscow’s attitude to Syria, and the sources of its disagreement with the West and a number of Arab states, one has to take a broader view, say foreign policy analysts. Last year, Russia abstained in the Security Council on the Libya no-flight zone vote, thus allowing the resolution to pass. Soon what was billed as protection of innocent civilians from a massacre in Benghazi turned into NATO’s offshore war against the Libyan government, which finally resulted in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and the killing of the dictator along with many of his supporters and probably a number of civilians. That NATO’s military actions went way beyond the terms of the U.N. resolution did not seem to bother Western governments.
According to Trenin: “The Russian government is openly conservative; it abhors revolutions. This, however, is more than a self-serving ideological stance. When the Kremlin looks at the Arab Awakening, they see democratisation leading directly to Islamicisation.
“If the West’s historical analogy is Europe’s 1848 or 1989, theirs is Russia’s 1917. They cite recent election results in Tunisia and especially Egypt. They point out that post-Gaddafi Libya is chaotic, with a lot of the former regime’s weaponry finding its way into unsavoury hands. In their view, Syria’s uprising could have even worse consequences in terms of sectarian violence and the potential to affect the country’s neighbours, particularly Lebanon and Israel”.
The Kremlin are fearful and hostile to any revolutions, but attempts to interfere in other countries’ civil wars can only make things worse. The Putin-Medvedev axis appreciate that the United States and other Western powers would only intervene militarily if they could sustain zero losses themselves, as in Libya. Syria, however, is a more difficult case. Arming the Free Syria Army and providing it with intelligence will not be enough to prevail over Assad’s forces. A prospect of a wider war with Arab and Turkish participation looms on the horizon. Such a war could only make sense if it were the first act of a more serious drama. Russians suspect that the real reason for the West’s pressure on Damascus is to rob Tehran of its only ally in the region. Behind the activity of the Gulf States, particularly Qatar, in the Syrian issue Moscow sees the rising regional influence of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bitter rival in the region. Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” ambitions are also playing a role. What the Russians are most worried about, however, is that Israel may strike at Iran, dragging in the United States and thus precipitating a major war with Iran sometime this year.
Trenin argues that Russian policy makers may have a point when they discuss other people’s policies. They need, however, to step back and look at their own. He told the New York Times last month: “Delivering arms into a country going through civil war is damaging, both politically and morally. Confronting both America and Europe, even if Western policies are misguided, is clearly at odds with Russia’s wider interests. Telling Qatar to shut up is not merely undiplomatic, but unwise. And openly quarrelling with Turkey and Saudi Arabia has to be avoided”.
Having lost $4 billion in Libyan arms and other contracts and facing the prospect of losing an equal amount in potential Syrian trade, Moscow argues that it has no other choice but to take a hard line. But when ordinary Syrian citizens and democratic protesters are being shot down by government forces, it will be a tragedy if, at the end of the day, this policy prevails. Is the blood of the Syrian people worth spilling for the sake of the lucrative arms trade?ShareThis