Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on the popular uprising against his rule, which has left some 2,600 people dead since March, has earned him opprobrium across the globe. But international efforts to pressure his regime further are unlikely to be enough to bring it down, so long as Mr. Assad retains the support of one powerful global player: Russia.
A traditional ally with trade ties worth close to $20 billion, Russia has a strong financial stake in the Assad regime's survival. But Moscow's support goes beyond pocketbook issues. As a vast country that has seen its share of uprising and revolution, the one-time superpower tends to support autocracy as the lesser evil and is skeptical of Western intervention – particularly in the wake of NATO's Libya campaign.
As one of five veto-wielding members on the United Nations Security Council, Russia can block any attempt to exert major international pressure on Assad, whether through economic sanctions or military intervention.
“Russia is now a business-oriented country, and the Russian government obviously wants to protect the investments made by its businessmen in Syria,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. “But … the main reason in being so stubborn [blocking UN action against Syria] is because Moscow perceives that the Western bloc is wrecking stability in the Middle East in pursuit of wrong-headed idealistic goals. A lot of Russians are horrified at what’s going on in the Middle East and they’re happy with their government’s position.”
Russia has been a prominent defender of the Assad regime, dispatching delegations and envoys to the Syrian capital and warning against international intervention similar to the NATO-led campaign against Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said recently that some of those taking part in the Syrian street protests had links to “terrorists,” while another senior Russian foreign ministry official said that “terrorist organizations” could gain power in Syria if Assad’s regime is toppled.
Such comments, which echo those of the Assad regime, have been warmly greeted in Damascus. On Sunday, Assad welcomed the “balanced and constructive Russian position toward the security and stability of Syria.”
True, Moscow is not the only country expressing wariness at sudden change in Syria: the five-nation BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) recently declared they were against intervention in Syria and urged dialogue between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. But Russia’s public and repeated defense of the regime has frustrated the Syrian opposition, which is seeking the support of the international community in its bid to oust Assad. Last week, Syrian protesters vented their irritation by staging a “day of anger against Russia.”
Why Russia backs Assad
Russia’s support for the Assad regime is rooted in self-interest, and calculates that Assad could yet prevail against the Syrian opposition movement.
“In fact we see that there is no united opposition in Syria, nor is there NATO support [for the rebellion] as was the case in Libya,” says Georgi Mirsky, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “Arab countries will never agree to even limited military operations against Syria [as they did in Libya]. The Syrian army is not split. Therefore, we see serious reasons to believe the Assad regime can survive. Even if it’s discredited, it could still hold on for a number of years. So there’s no sense of urgency in Moscow to change policies.”
Russia has long-standing commercial, military, and political ties to Syria. According to a recent article in The Moscow Times, Russian investments in Syria in 2009 were valued at $19.4 billion, mainly in arms deals, infrastructure development, energy, and tourism. Russian exports to Syria in 2010 totaled $1.1 billion, the newspaper said.
Other than lucrative business deals, Moscow is seeking to wield greater influence on the global stage after losing some of its prestige with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It traditionally opposes foreign interventions – which potentially can set precedents for Russia in the future – and serves as a counter-balance to the perceived axis of the United States, the European Union and NATO.
Furthermore, Russia – with a multitude of ethnic and religious sects, as well as nationalist minorities – has an innate suspicion of popular uprisings and their uncertain outcomes, from ousting a regime to plunging a country into chaos. While the West optimistically embraces the Arab Spring as a welcome shift toward democracy in the region, Russia takes the more hard-nosed view that the outcome will be instability and bloodshed.
“Western idealism has contributed to chaos in the Middle East, and for once Russian foreign policy is right not to want any part of it,” says Mr. Satanovsky from the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. “The minimum we can expect in Syria is civil war, with rivers of blood. Yes, it is a cruel dictatorship, but Russia sees only worse things taking its place.”
Russia-Syria arms deals
Russian-Syrian ties are perhaps strongest in the field of arms sales. The Soviet Union was Syria’s main supplier of weapons during the cold war, leaving Damascus saddled with a $13.4 billion arms debt.
Although trade dwindled following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it picked up again beginning in 2005 when Moscow wrote off almost 75 percent of the debt. Russia and Syria have signed arms deals worth some $4 billion since 2006. They include the sale of MiG 29 fighter jets, Yak-130 jet trainers, Pantsir and Buk air defense systems, and P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles. Syria also hopes to receive Iskandar ballistic missiles and S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, the latter of which would pose significant threats to hostile aircraft operating in Syrian skies.
Much of the funding for the arms deals reportedly is underwritten by Iran, which signed several defense agreements with Syria from 2005. That enables some of the weapons allegedly to be quietly transferred to Iran thus circumventing a United Nations ban of arms exports to the Islamic Republic.
Russia also operates a naval supply and maintenance site near the Syrian port city of Tartous on the Mediterranean. The Soviet-era facility has been in Russian hands since 1971 but fell into disrepair in 1992. However, the port is undergoing a major refurbishment which will grant Russian naval vessels a permanent base in the Mediterranean after 2012. Presently, Russia’s only other warm-water naval facility is at Sevastopol in the nearly-landlocked Black Sea. All Russian shipping exiting the Black Sea must sail through the narrow Bosporus channel, which lies within Turkish waters.
However, the billions of dollars in investments and the strategic naval facility in Tartous could all be jeopardized if the Assad regime is overthrown or the country descends into violent chaos. As it is, Moscow, which has criticized the NATO-led intervention in Libya, is waiting to see if the new authorities in Tripoli will honor some $10 billion worth of business deals reached with the Qaddafi regime.