I wrote a piece on Russian-Syrian relations this week for the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief. Usually, I repost these once their exclusivity has run out. But part of this one seems to have been picked up by Fareed Zakaria GPS over at cnn.com and I can repost it here now.
On Tuesday, the U.S., UK and French ambassadors to the United Nations sharply criticized “irresponsible” arms sales to the Syrian regime. This was a thinly veiled reference to Moscow’s close defense-industrial cooperation with Damascus.
In recent months, Russia has been Syria’s foremost protector in the international arena. It has taken on this role because of Syria’s economic significance for its arms export industry, its role as the host of Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union – and its concern that anti-government protesters in Moscow might be inspired by a successful popular uprising farther afield.
Syria is one of the top five foreign buyers of Russian defense equipment, receiving 6% of all its arms exports in 2010. Contracts for further deliveries are worth about $4 billion, and are critical for some companies’ financial survival. Russian exporters fear that regime change in Syria would lead to the annulment of these agreements, as new rulers may pursue opportunities to purchase weapons from other countries.
The uprising has not deterred Russia from continuing to send weapons to Syria, including a shipment of various munitions that came to attention this month after the ship carrying the weapons made an unscheduled stop in Cyprus.
In addition to military contracts, Russian companies have other investments in Syria, primarily in natural gas extraction. These are valued at approximately $20 billion and include a pipeline and a liquefied natural gas production facility. Moreover, Russia has given up all but one of its military facilities outside the former Soviet Union – the sole remaining presence is its naval logistics facility in Tartus. The base’s primary purpose is to repair and resupply Russian navy ships transiting the Mediterranean.
While the Syrian opposition has not made any statements regarding the future of Tartus, Russia has long depended entirely on President Bashar al-Assad and cannot expect to have good relations with his successors, especially if they come to power by force.
While the ‘Arab awakenings’ have little direct connection to the rallies against President Vladimir Putin’s political order, Russian leaders feel that they are surrounded by a tide of anti-incumbent protests – and see each government toppled as potentially feeding the mood throughout the world. A related fear is that the overthrow of the Assad regime may feed a resurgence of anti-government protests in Iran, bringing political instability even closer to Russia’s borders.
Furthermore, Russian leaders are concerned about the gains made by Islamist forces in the region, particularly in Egypt. The twin dangers of popular overthrow of local autocrats and subsequent electoral victories by Islamic parties have raised fears about an Islamist takeover in one or more Central Asian states. Though such a scenario appears unlikely, it is a particularly sensitive issue for Russia because it would likely lead to a significant increase in migration inflows from the region, further destabilising an already volatile domestic political situation.
Russian leaders will use the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to show that their country is still a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. They will also press their case that overthrowing the current Syrian regime would lead to further instability in the region – which might even spread to the former Soviet Union. As a result, Russia will do its utmost to prevent the fall of Assad.