Why Russia is willing to sell arms to Syria

Russia, which has weapons contracts with Syria worth $5 billion, is increasingly resisting international pressure to punish its ally. Yesterday it did not deny a report of a recent arms shipment.

Anti-Syrian regime protesters chant slogans and flash the victory sign as they march during a demonstration at the mountain resort town of Zabadani, Syria, near the Lebanese border, Tuesday. Syria's powerful ally Russia said Wednesday it would block any attempt by the West to secure UN support for the use of force against the regime in Damascus, which is under intense international pressure to end its deadly crackdown on dissent.
Muzaffar Salman/AP
Pro-Syrian regime protesters, wave a giant portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration to show their solidarity for their president, at a central square in Damascus, Syria, last week.

Russia is digging in its heels against international action that would punish Syria's regime for its brutal crackdown on a popular uprising that has moved into its 11th month.

Not only will Russia veto any sanctions put before the United Nations Security Council, where it is one of five veto-wielding members, it also looks set to continue supplying billions of dollars worth of Russian arms that Syria has contracted to buy. And it will not halt friendly Russian gestures toward the regime of Bashar al-Assad, such as this month's visit of Russia's only operational aircraft carrier to the Syrian port of Tartous.

As the death toll for Syria's popular uprising has risen to more than 5,000 in recent months, international leaders have called for more punitive sanctions against the Assad regime. But Russia's opposition to such measures has toughened in part due to increasing suspicions of Western intentions, and in part due to growing fears that Russia could lose its oldest and most important Middle Eastern ally through Western-sponsored regime change in Syria.

Some analysts add that Russia's own bubbling political instability has sharpened the Kremlin's traditional resistance to any precedents that seem to mandate outside interference in a sovereign country's internal affairs.

"Russian leaders view Syria as our major ally in the Middle East, with whom we have good political, military, and economic ties," says Alexander Golts, a military expert with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. Mr. Golts suggests that with Vladimir Putin almost certain to return as president in March, foreign policy experiments involving greater cooperation with the West that occurred under President Dmitry Medvedev are probably a thing of the past.

"Putin has a real paranoia about colored revolutions. He reads such [pro-democracy rebellions] as a result of Western conspiracies," he says. "The attitude is, we're not going to be fooled any more."

In his annual press conference Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rebuffed concerns about a reported delivery of Russian ammunition for Syria's armed forces this month by saying: "We don't consider it necessary to explain or justify ourselves, as we are not violating any international agreements or any [UN] Security Council resolutions."

UN sanctions would cost Russia $5 billion in arms sales

Russia's official arms export corporation, Rosoboronexport, declined to detail the extent of weapons contracts with Syria today. Its press secretary, Vyacheslav Davidenko, merely echoed Mr. Lavrov by insisting that "Russia will do nothing in violation of UN sanctions. If there aren't any, then we are free to supply any goods or services," to Syria, he says.

But according to the independent Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade (CAWAT) in Moscow, Syria is Russia's seventh-largest customer in a global market that yielded almost $8 billion for Rosoboronexport in 2009. Sales to Syria over the past decade have amounted to about 10 percent of Russia's total weapons exports.

Russia stands to lose about $5 billion in arms sales if UN sanctions are imposed on Syria, including current contracts worth about $1.5 billion, a CAWAT study concludes. In recent years Russia has modernized Syria's aging fleet of T-72 tanks and supplied 24 new MiG-29 fighter planes, as well as providing a range of anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank rockets, and smaller arms. In various stages of negotiation are contracts to purchase $3.5 billion in new Russian weapons, including two diesel-electric submarines, more MiG-29 fighters, mobile Iskander-E missiles, modern T-90 tanks and various other weapons, including surface warships and helicopters, the study says.

The loss of the Syrian market would be a huge blow to Russia's arms export industry, which has already lost an estimated $4.5 billion in lost contracts with Libya and as much as $13 billion due to UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.

"Syria has been a traditional ally and arms importer from Russia [since 1971) and so Russia has a very different view from the West's hope of overthrowing the ruling regime there," says Igor Korotchenko, director of CAWAT. "Therefore, Russia has put its stakes on providing political and military support for the Syrian regime, and Russian leaders believe this corresponds to the long-term national interests of Russia itself."

Not everyone agrees.

"I do wonder whether Russia's interests are best served by following these contracts. There are differences of opinion within Russia's ruling elite over this, but the group that sees Syria as a traditional ally that must be supported seems to prevail," says Alexander Sharavin, director of the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis. "In my opinion, these arms contracts and the use of Tartous to serve Russian warships are important, but they are not so large" that they should be allowed to dictate Russian policy.

"Probably we should have changed these attitudes a long time ago, [because these relations with Syria] injure Russia and hamper our relations with the West," he adds.

No more Libyas

Everyone agrees that Lavrov's assertion that there are no internationally approved sanctions against Syria is technically correct. But most experts say the tone of abrupt dismissal toward Western concerns is new.

Russia's position is hardening because the Kremlin feels it was conned last year into acquiescing to a UN-approved no-fly zone in Libya, supposedly to protect civilian lives, which turned into drawn-out armed support for a rebellion that ended in the overthrow and murder of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Lavrov complained that Western countries are secretly planning, and perhaps arming, Syrian rebels to carry out a similar ousting of Mr. Assad, again under the guise of humanitarian concerns. "Our partners in the West are in fact discussing a no-fly zone. . . No one can deny that (some forces) are smuggling weapons to the gunmen and to the extremists in Syria who are attempting to exploit the protest movement to achieve their goals of usurping power... There are other ideas being realized, including humanitarian convoys, in the hope they could provoke a response from [Syrian] government forces," he said.

Most Russian security experts consulted today agreed with Lavrov. Some pointed to a draft Russian resolution before the Security Council that calls for dialogue between the Assad regime and its opponents, and international condemnation of all violence no matter whether it originates with the Syrian state or the rebels.

"Russia is not concerned any longer with what they say in the West," says Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and
Military Analysis in Moscow. "Russian leaders are right to see the double standards in play when the West complains about Middle Eastern 'dictatorships'. Is Syria really worse than Saudi Arabia or Qatar, or is the problem just that it's not a US ally? ...

"Russia's position on Syria is fair and balanced," he adds. "We want to see an end to violence on both sides, equal blame for both sides, and we are against any external interference in Syria."

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