Raising the stakes: Russian military support for Syria

Rus­sia is step­ping up mil­i­tary sup­port for Syr­ia; rein­forc­ing its oppo­si­tion to inter­na­tion­al efforts to force Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad to halt his eight-month-old crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers. In so doing, Rus­sia is turn­ing the Syr­i­an cri­sis into an inter­na­tion­al test of wills. 


RUSSIA IS rein­forc­ing its oppo­si­tion to inter­na­tion­al efforts to tight­en the eco­nom­ic embar­go on Syr­ia by send­ing a Russ­ian bat­tle group of three ves­sels led by an air­craft car­ri­er to the east­ern Mediter­ranean. The flotil­la, expect­ed in the region at the end of this week, is like­ly to dock in the Syr­i­an port of Tar­tus, Russia’s only naval base in the Mediter­ranean, before the end of the month, accord­ing to Russ­ian defence officials. 

The arrival of the flotil­la comes on the heels of the deliv­ery to Syr­ia of super­son­ic anti-ship Yakhont cruise mis­siles as part of an agree­ment signed in 2007 and a Russ­ian promise to go ahead with the train­ing of Syr­i­an per­son­nel in the use the state-of-the-art weapons. 

As Syr­ia teeters on the brink of civ­il war, Rus­sia, in send­ing a flotil­la to the east­ern Mediter­ranean and main­tain­ing arms sup­plies to Syr­ia, is in effect bol­ster­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar Al Assad’s resolve not to give in to inter­na­tion­al demands that he halts his bru­tal eight-month-old crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment protesters. 

That cor­ner of the Mediter­ranean is already being patrolled by US 6th Fleet war­ships led by an air­craft car­ri­er. By rais­ing the bar, Rus­sia is sig­nalling its deter­mi­na­tion to foil attempts to stran­gle the Syr­i­an leader’s regime and also hopes to reduce the chances of a mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Syr­ia, pos­si­bly spear­head­ed by Turkey. In a defi­ant show of force, Syr­ia last week held war games that includ­ed test-fir­ing of mis­siles and air force and ground troop operations. 

Cap­i­tal­is­ing on influ­ence in Dam­as­cus

In an iron­ic twist, Russia’s break­ing of ranks with the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty could posi­tion it along­side the Arab League as the only pow­er poten­tial­ly capa­ble of coax­ing Assad to mod­er­ate his hard line towards his oppo­nents. Rus­sia has con­sis­tent­ly resist­ed efforts in the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil to con­demn Turkey as has Chi­na, which how­ev­er, unlike Rus­sia, has declared its sup­port for sanc­tions imposed by the Arab League. 

Syr­ia this week con­di­tion­al­ly agreed to allow Arab observers into the coun­try to mon­i­tor com­pli­ance with a gov­ern­ment cease­fire in a bid to fend off stepped up Arab sanc­tions and an Arab push for UN involve­ment in the cri­sis. With Syr­ia hav­ing repeat­ed­ly bro­ken its ear­li­er pledges to halt the crack­down, it remains to be seen how seri­ous Assad is this time around. More­over, the bat­tle lines in Syr­ia have hard­ened to a degree that oppo­si­tion forces may be unwill­ing to set­tle for any­thing less than Assad’s demise. 

Russia’s defi­ant resis­tance to allow­ing Syr­ia to be inter­na­tion­al­ly iso­lat­ed is fuelled by the fact that it has far more to lose polit­i­cal­ly, strate­gi­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly in Syr­ia than it did in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen — the four Arab nations whose auto­crat­ic lead­ers were this year swept aside by the wave of anti-gov­ern­ment protests sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. 

The naval base in Tar­tus is oper­at­ed by the Russ­ian mil­i­tary under an agree­ment signed in 1971 between Syr­ia and the then Sovi­et Union even though the Sovi­et Navy’s Mediter­ranean Fleet was dis­band­ed after the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union. As a result, the port’s float­ing docks fell into dis­re­pair and Russ­ian naval ves­sels rarely vis­it­ed. That changed four years ago when Rus­sia decid­ed to ren­o­vate the base and turn it again into its win­dow on the Mediter­ranean. Some 600 Russ­ian tech­ni­cians are upgrad­ing facil­i­ties, dredg­ing the har­bour, and prepar­ing it for Russ­ian Navy port calls of which the Admi­ral Kuznetsov would be the first. 

Polit­i­cal risk out­strips eco­nom­ic and strate­gic stakes

Russia’s eco­nom­ic stakes in Syr­ia are equal­ly high. Rus­sia has con­clud­ed US$4 bil­lion worth of arms con­tracts with Syr­ia and has invest­ed some $20 bil­lion in Syr­i­an infra­struc­ture, ener­gy and tourism. Russia’s Stroitransgaz is build­ing a nat­ur­al gas pro­cess­ing plant and sup­port­ing an Arab gas pipeline while Tat­neft, which is already pump­ing Syr­i­an oil, announced ear­li­er this year that it would invest $12.8m in oil explo­ration near the Iraqi border. 

If the eco­nom­ic and strate­gic stakes are high, they pale from Russia’s per­spec­tive com­pared to the poten­tial fall­out if Assad’s oppo­nents pre­vail in the face of a crack­down that has so far cost 4,000 lives, wound­ed thou­sands, and led to the arrest of even greater num­bers. Russ­ian forces have this year killed some 300 mil­i­tants in the north­ern Cau­cus, a patch­work of eth­nic and reli­gious groups where Islamists reg­u­lar­ly attack Russ­ian tar­gets. They could well be encour­aged by the top­pling of Assad. Alter­na­tive­ly, a Syr­ia that dis­in­te­grates as a result of civ­il war could equal­ly inspire mil­i­tants in Russ­ian republics like Chech­nya, Dages­tan and Ingushetia. 

Syr­i­an accep­tance of Arab League observers, if imple­ment­ed, offers Rus­sia the oppor­tu­ni­ty to align sup­port for Assad with Arab efforts to resolve the Syr­i­an cri­sis peace­ful­ly. The ques­tion is whether a nego­ti­at­ed solu­tion that seeks to meet pro­test­ers’ demands for an end to repres­sion and cor­rup­tion and a tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy, is pos­si­ble as long as Assad remains in office giv­en that the Syr­i­an leader and his cohorts are unlike­ly to risk a polit­i­cal open­ing after so much bloodshed. 

At the very least, Rus­sia hopes that by posi­tion­ing itself along­side the Arab League as a key play­er with influ­ence in Dam­as­cus it will be able to pro­tect its inter­ests by shap­ing what­ev­er nego­ti­at­ed res­o­lu­tion is achieved whether or not it main­tains Assad in office. The alter­na­tive — the over­throw of the Assad regime — would con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant set­back for Rus­sia not only in the East­ern Mediter­ranean but also across the Mid­dle East and North Africa. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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