As the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad struggles to maintain its fleeting grip on power, it has been handed a lifeline by an obstructionist Russia that, along with China, has done all it can to save the dictatorship from collapse.
The Wall Street Journal reports in an investigative scoop this week that Syrian officials have been scheming with Russian banks to bypass the crippling sanctions on oil and financial transactions imposed on the country by Europe and the United States. Correspondence uncovered by the Journal shows, among other evasive tactics, that Syrian officials have been working to set up offshore companies and banking accounts in Russia. The goal is to help the regime pay for imports and to receive payments for oil exports while covering its steps from the EU and the U.S. and dodging sanctions.
Based on the Journal’s account, Russian companies have been all too eager to participate in this deception. For instance, some of the documents reviewed by the paper show that Russian buyers of Syrian oil made plans to sell the oil by loading it onto Russian-owned tankers in the Black Sea. It’s not clear who the ultimate buyers might be, but the intention seems to be to help Syria sell its oil in defiance of international sanctions. Since the sanctions aren’t binding on Russia, Russian companies have been free to further these oil deals with impunity.
It hardly exaggerates the value of these deals to Syria's government to suggest that the Russian-abetted oil sales are now the lifeblood of the Syrian regime. While Syria’s daily oil production represents less than 1 percent of total global output, revenue from oil sales has become essential for the Assad government as sanctions have choked off other sources of foreign currency. Thus the roughly $380 million that Syria’s oil sales generate monthly may be the only thing that allows the regime to sustain itself and to support the military that, for the time being, keeps it in power.
It’s not clear from the Journal’s reporting whether all of the deals between Syria and Russia were actually completed. But the very fact that Russia has been willing to help the Syrian regime evade sanctions underlines the challenges of maintaining an effective sanctions regime so long as Russia is determined to keep its Syrian client state afloat. Backed by China, Russia has been the greatest roadblock to meaningful action against the Assad regime. Since the current uprising in Syria began 17 months ago, Russia has used its vote on the U.N. Security Council three times to block resolutions to pressure the regime and to end the bloodshed that has killed 23,000 people, and counting, since last May.
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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