As Syria’s regional and international standing has deteriorated amidst a bloody and brutal crackdown, one country has stood steadfastly in President Bashar al-Assad’s corner. Condemned by the international community and ostracized by the Arab League, Syria’s dictatorship has found a staunch ally in Russia.
Efforts to hold Syria to account have repeatedly run up against Russian opposition. Last October, Russia, backed by China, used its veto on the UN Security Council to block a resolution condemning Assad’s government for its suppression of anti-government opposition. Even when Assad stepped up the violence against his own people, Russia refused to spurn the regime. In December, Russia again blocked a UN resolution to hold Syria accountable for the violence. Just last week, Russia insisted that a draft U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Assad to step aside violated Russia’s “red lines.” While the U.S. and its Arab and European allies press for a resolution calling for Assad to step aside, Russia continues to champion his cause.
Russia’s support for Syria has been striking, not least because it is essentially alone in that support, but it’s not new. Russo-Syrian ties extend back to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union relied on Syria, then ruled by Assad’s father Hafez Assad, as a key sphere of influence. Situated just 400 miles from the Soviet Union’s southwestern border, Syria provided its Soviet patron with strategic and economic benefits. Access to Syrian ports at Tartus and Latakia ensured that the Soviet Union would have a direct link to the Mediterranean Sea. That strategic alliance was further forged with military sales. Between 1956 and 1985, Syria received $16.3 billion in Soviet military equipment, more than any other country in that time period.
Although the Soviet Union is no more, Russia remains a leading weapons supplier for Damascus. By some estimates, at least 10 percent of Russia’s global arms sales go to Syria. Current military contracts are estimated to be worth between $1.5 and $4 billion. Russia also retains its Soviet-era naval base in the port of Tartus. In a symbolic throwback to that era, just last month Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, anchored at the port. Syrian authorities welcomed the public relations opportunity, hailing the ship’s arrival as a “show of solidarity with the Syrian people.”
Russia also has other investments in Syria, including some estimated $20 billion in Syria’s infrastructure and energy sectors. The Russian engineering company Stroytransgaz has contracts with Syria’s state-owned gas company to develop technical equipment, build roads and lay miles of pipeline in Syria’s central region. Stroytransgaz is also building a natural gas refining plant just east of the Syrian city of Homs. It would not have escaped Russia’s notice that Homs in recent days has been the site of some of the most intense fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels, with an oil pipeline feeding a Syrian refinery among the casualties.
Oil is not what binds Russia to Syria, however. As the world’s largest oil producer and second largest exporter, Russia is not dependent on the Arab world for its energy consumption. Arguably even more than an economic interest, Syria is a status symbol for a country that has never fully abandoned its superpower designs. The collapse of the Soviet Union spelled the end of Russia’s ability to project power and influence through its client states but not its desire to do so. Deprived of its satellites, Russia made its mark by backing anti-Western regimes, whether it was Slabodan Mioslevic in Seria and the Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But as those regimes fell to U.S. and NATO interventions, Russian allies have become a rare commodity. ”With the exception of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Venezuela, there are practically no countries that may be called our friends,” Russian political analyst Alexei Vorobyov recently told the BBC. One could well add Syria to the small list of exceptions.
Yet Russian solidarity with Syria is more than an act of defiance against the West. It is also based on the cold logic that an international campaign to bring accountability to an undemocratic regime could be leveled against Russia, as well as Syria. Vladimir Putin is not Bashar al-Assad, even if Russia’s ruthless military intervention in Chechnya bears more than a passing resemblance to the Syrian government’s suppression of domestic opposition. But as the recent mass rallies in Moscow show, in the eyes of many Russians, Putin’s claims to democratic legitimacy are no more credible than Assad’s. It’s little wonder, then, that Russia has been so adamant in blocking regime change in Syria. As Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin revealingly observed this week, once Western countries begin initiating regime change ”it is difficult to stop, then you will start telling what kings need to resign and what prime ministers need to step down.” Including, say, a certain prime minister with plans to reinstall himself as president.
In reality, any such Western effort is unlikely. The Obama administration, seemingly unwilling to accept “no” for an answer, continues to pursue its “reset” policy toward Russia. In the meantime, Russia’s intransigent backing for the Assad regime ensures that Syrians will continue to suffer. Since the government began its crackdown last March, over 6,000 people have been killed, the majority of them civilians. And the government shows no signs of backing down. Just last month, Assad vowed to use an “iron fist” to crush the Syrian opposition movement.
With their country on the edge of civil war, Syrians are in a precarious position. But with Russia effectively blocking any meaningful international attempt to intervene, the Assad regime need not count its days. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s “red lines” guarantee that the regime can continue to shed Syrian blood with impunity.
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