Why Russia Protects Assad

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.

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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.

5 thoughts on “Why Russia Protects Assad

  1. What about human rights? As I said before, Russia would be even better off with naval faciities in Greece. That would bring it right within NATO territory. Never ind the resources business deals with Syria, it’s just a matter of time before he falls.

  2. In addition to direct effects, such as the potential loss of a naval facility, and demonstration effects, such as the spread of rebellion to other areas, I might give some emphasis to reputational effects. You do mention in passing that Russia wants to be seen as “still a force to be reckoned with.” As an aspiring world power seeking to maintain and gain alliances, Russia will want to avoid the notion that its allies are easily overthrown. Also, while there are limits to how much they’ll want to spend on that at this particular time, there must be Russian nationalists who resent the fact that the US keeps advocating the overthrow of Russia’s allies as the morally superior option and, moreover, keep insisting that the Russians help them do it.

  3. Pingback: Russian interests in Syria « Russian Military Reform

  4. CNN should know; it is based in the country that sold Iran its air force, the only foreign nation to fly the F-14 Tomcat. Now, of course, Iran is the devil, and the USA would prefer to forget who armed it. There’s no need to pretend Russia is some sort of malevolent cancer because it sells arms; the USA is the world’s largest arms dealer by a wide margin, and often sells (or gives) weapons to extremely unstable nations in the course of trying to overthrow their governments. The Stinger missiles that once littered Afghanistan, which the CIA later tried to buy back, stand as an excellent example.

    Part of the reason Russia stands by Assad is that the Arab League’s own Observer Mission reported the main instigator of the violence in Syria was not government forces, but mercenary armies which have entrenched themselves in cities like Homs. The mission also reported that activists report explosions and incidents of violence that, on investigation by mission personnel, turn out to have been fabricated. The mission reported that the media is exaggerating casualty figures and incidents of violence. The response of the Arab League was to terminate its Observer Mission, saying that it had “been ineffective”. The leader of the Observer Mission resigned this past Sunday.

    The primary source of Syrian violence and casualty figures is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, about which little is known but that it is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (which hopes to form the new government after Assad is toppled) and that it provides no substantiation at all for its casualty figures. Western media simply reports them uncritically, noting that they are “according to activists”.

    The UNSC Resolution Russia jointly vetoed gave Assad only 21 days to implement all its demands, including that he give up power and allow a political transition to take place. While nations furious at Russia for the veto suggest all elements that might have construed an arms embargo were removed, the UNSC would meet 21 days after the date of the resolution’s being adopted, to debate “further action”. It would have been a lot harder to turn it off then.

    This is the same template that was used in Libya, and look what a wreck that is.

  5. Pingback: Russia fears demonstration effects of Syrian uprising « Russian Military Reform

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