New report on Russian interests in Syria, part 1: Russian motivations

The Russian defense think tank CAST has produced a new report on Russian interests in Syria, by Mikhail Barabanov and Ruslan Aliev. This report largely supports my recent contention that while Russia has significant material interests in Syria, they are not the main reason for its support of the Assad regime. Let me first address what the report says about Russian motivations. Tomorrow, I’ll address the part of the report that spells out Russian material interests in Syria, since CAST provides some interesting new information on this topic.

One thing that the report notes at the outset is that there is a widespread consensus in Russia on support for the Assad regime. This includes not just political leaders, but also most experts and the public as well. The authors describe the Russian position as a strong consensus to defend Russian interests and limit Western willfulness. Of course, this just begs the question of what are Russian interests in this case.

The authors mention that Putin may have some sympathy for Assad as a fellow authoritarian leader facing internal protests that have Western support. But they judge that Putin is too pragmatic and opportunistic to allow such considerations to affect Russian policy.

They argue instead that the greatest role in determining  Russian policy is played by the elite and expert consensus that Syria must not be lost, as Assad’s defeat would mean the loss of Russia’s last client and ally in the Middle East. Syria is seen in some quarters as one of the last symbolic remnants of Russia’s superpower status. For supporters of this view, Western intervention in Syria would be seen as the destruction of one of the few remaining symbols of Russia’s great power status.

Barabanov and Aliev then argue that this view is support by skepticism about the results of the Arab spring in general and the possible outcome of the Syrian revolution in particular. Russian elites believe that the Arab spring has destabilized the Middle East and opened the door for Islamist forces to take power. As they see it, only secular authoritarian regimes such as that of Assad can counter the rise of Islamist forces. The strong support being given by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebels only deepens Russian suspicions in this regard, given Russian beliefs about past Saudi efforts to export “wahhabism” to the North Caucasus and Central Asia.

Finally, Russian dislike for unilateral Western interventionism plays a role as well, augmented by Russian views that Western powers used the potential of a humanitarian crisis in Benghazi to push through a UN Security Council resolution authorizing Western intervention in Libya that was then cynically interpreted in a way that allowed Western powers to overthrow the Gaddhafi regime.

The authors conclude by noting that the Syrian situation thus combines all the phobias and complexes of Russian politics and public opinion. What is actually happening in Syria thus plays second fiddle to Russian perceptions about Russia’s role in the international system and pathologies related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent decline.

All of this is broadly in line with my recent memo on this topic, so I’m naturally quite sympathetic to the argument in the report. I put more emphasis in my analysis on Russia’s role in the international community versus concern about Islamism and regional stability, but these are relatively fine distinctions that don’t really change the overall point: Russia is not backing Assad because of its commercial relationship or desire to maintain a military outpost there. It is backing Assad because it perceives that Assad’s downfall would have serious and long-lasting negative repercussions for Russia’s position in the Middle East and in the world, as well as for regional stability in the Middle East. This makes it far less likely that Russia would be willing to change its position in exchange for concessions on other material issues.

Russia fears demonstration effects of Syrian uprising

Here’s the full text of my Oxford Analytica brief from January. I posted an abbreviated version earlier, but now can post the whole thing.

As the uprising in Syria approaches its one-year anniversary, the stand-off between its government and the international community seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. Throughout this period, Russia has been Syria’s foremost protector in the international arena. It has taken on this role because of Syria’s economic significance for the arms export industry, its role as the host of Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union — and concern that a successful mass uprising might have negative consequences for its own political stability.

What next

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 overthrow of the current Syrian regime would lead to further instability in the region — which might even spread to parts of the former Soviet Union. As a result, Russia will continue to do its utmost to prevent the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Analysis

Syria is one of the five largest foreign buyers of Russian defence equipment, receiving 6% of all arms exports in 2010 (the most recent full year for which data are available). In recent years, Syria has received:

  • 2,000 anti-tank missiles for modernised T-72 tanks (delivered between 1999-2005);
  • 200 Igla (SA-18) portable surface-to-air missiles, delivered without portable launchers as a result of US and Israeli pressure — and therefore usable only on ships, helicopters or vehicles (delivered in 2006);
  • 36 Pantsir-S1 mobile air defence systems, armed with 500 SA-19 surface-to-air missiles (delivered between 2008-10);
  • 2 K-300 Bastion coastal defence batteries, armed with Yakhont (SS-N-26) anti-ship missiles (delivered in 2010).

Contracts for future deliveries include:

  •  200 more SA-19s;
  • additional Igla portable surface-to-air missiles;
  • 2 MiG-31M interceptors, second-hand from the Russian air force;
  • 8 Buk-M2E missile system batteries (worth 1 billion dollars); and
  • an unknown number of 9M123 Chrysanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems (status uncertain);
  • 36 Yak-130 training aircraft (worth 550 million dollars, announced this month);
  • modernisation of 24 Syrian MiG-29s to the SMT level;
  • modernisation of S-125 Pechora-2 surface-to-air missiles; and
  • modernisation of 200 T-72 tanks, as part of a 500 million dollar contract to upgrade 1,000 tanks, with 800 already completed by end-2010.

The total value of these contracts is around 4 billion dollars; the agreements are critical for some companies’ financial survival. Russian exporters fear that regime change in Syria would lead to the loss of contracts, as new rulers may pursue opportunities to purchase weapons from other countries. They point to Libya as an example of the economic impact of a government overthrow on Russian arms sales. Since the uprising began, Russia has continued 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 because of high seas.

Wider interests, higher stakes

In addition to military contracts, Russian companies have other investments in Syria, primarily in natural gas extraction. These are valued at approximately 20 billion dollars and include a pipeline and a liquefied natural gas production facility.

Based on their experience with the new government in Libya, Russian leaders believe that these contracts will be lost if the opposition comes to power in Syria. Even if Russia abandons Assad at this point, they assess that the opposition would not forgive their earlier strong support for his regime. The announcement of a new contract for training aircraft this month, with initial deliveries scheduled for 2013, shows that the Russian government has decided to bank on the survival of the Assad regime. If the regime falls, both this contract and the other unfulfilled contracts for Russian military equipment are almost certain to be cancelled. Russia’s economic interests in Syria can be maintained only if Assad defeats the opposition or there is a negotiated settlement.

The role of Tartus

In the years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia gave up all but one of its military facilities outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. The one remaining is the naval logistics facility in Tartus. This is not a true military base, since it does not permanently host any Russian military personnel other than the 50 sailors who staff it. It consists of two floating piers, a floating repair facility, and a supply depot. Its primary purpose is to repair and resupply Russian navy ships transiting the Mediterranean.

Russian leaders are concerned that the fall of the Assad regime may lead to the closure of this facility. While the Syrian opposition has not made any statements regarding the future of Tartus, Russia has long depended entirely on Assad and cannot expect to have good relations with his successors, especially if they come to power by force.

Power projection

The recent visit to Syria by a Russian naval group that included the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier was designed to demonstrate the importance that Russia attaches to its relationship with Syria and its current leadership. While official Russian sources repeatedly stated that this was a routine resupply visit scheduled long ago and had no political connotations, it was almost certainly intended as a political signal. The arrival of the ships was interpreted at home and abroad as a sign that Russia would not tolerate a ‘Libya scenario’ — and was perceived as such by the Syrian government and official media, which trumpeted the arrival of the ships as an indication of Russian support for the Assad regime.

Russian leaders may have actually meant to signal something slightly different: they want to demonstrate that Russia remains a player in the Middle East, and that its positions have to be taken into account. They believe that Assad’s departure will result in Syria either becoming a Turkish ally or descending into long-term chaos and civil war. In either situation, Russia will lose a dependable ally.

Syrian demonstration effects

The authorities in Moscow are also concerned that further successful popular uprisings in the Middle East may lead to demonstration effects in its own neighbourhood — and perhaps even in Russia itself. Initially, the greatest fear was about the possibility of popular uprisings bringing down ‘friendly’ autocrats in Central Asia. However, the recent large demonstrations against the falsification of elections in Russia itself have only increased its leaders’ determination to ensure that no additional ‘dominoes’ fall under popular pressure.

While the ‘Arab awakenings’ have little direct connection to the emergence of protests against 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 the region’s political instability even closer to Russia’s borders.

Furthermore, Russian leaders are concerned about the gains made by Islamist forces in the region, and particularly in Egypt. The twin dangers of popular overthrow of local autocrats and the subsequent victory of Islamic parties in elections raise the danger of an Islamist takeover of parts of Central Asia. Such a scenario would likely lead to a significant increase in migration flows from the region to Russia, further destabilising the domestic political situation.

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.