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Not only does Russia shield the regime from tougher measures — measures that might have brought about its peaceful end — but it continues to supply Assad’s war machine with arms and thus to perpetuate his brutal crackdown on the Syrian people. According to Moscow’s Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade, Russia’s arms sales to Syria over the past decade make up 10 percent of Russia’s global arms exports. Syria is now Russia’s top weapons customer in the Middle East. Buoyed by Russian weaponry, Assad now counts on everything from Russian-made attack helicopters and battle tanks to Russian-issue mortars, shells and land mines. It’s a grim arsenal of suppression, all bearing a Russian import stamp.
Arms profits are of course just one reason that Russia props up the Assad regime in the face of international condemnation. Frustrating Western efforts to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria is in part an expression of Russia’s nostalgia for great power status, dating back to days when the Soviet Union had the world on edge. In part, too, it reflects a seemingly ageless paranoia that regards the outside world, and especially the United States, with unreserved suspicion. Both tendencies are perfectly exemplified by Russian president Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy whose nostalgia for an idealized Soviet past is matched only by his ardent anti-Americanism. Add in a generous dose of cynicism and Russia’s strategy toward Syria becomes less mysterious.
However one accounts for Russia’s role in prolonging the Syrian conflict, the ultimate price is borne by the Syrian people. Thousands have been killed, over a million have been displaced, and notwithstanding unconfirmed reports that the Syrian regime is on the brink of collapse, the country’s suffering continues with no end in sight. The Assad regime is overwhelmingly responsible for that suffering, but in the absence of Russian support it may not have continued as long as it has.
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