From the outset of the uprising in Syria, Russia has taken a dispassionate and often confounding stance towards the civil unrest and continued bloodshed. It has remained staunchly against sanctions aimed at debilitating the vehement Assad government, and obstructed countless efforts by the UN and other international bodies to castigate the violence, often to the dismay of Western diplomats. As a result, Syrian protesters have publicly burned the Russian flag in fury at Moscow’s hindrance. The reasoning behind this obstruction lies in Russia’s history with Syria, and its current vested interests in the Syrian regime.
Russian political maneuvers during the Syrian uprising
At the beginning of October, Russia was beginning to make its intentions known with regard to Syria when it vetoed a UN resolution condemning the regime. The US was outraged by this move, not least because the resolution itself had already been diluted a number of times to remove direct references to sanctions, instead referring to them as ‘targeted measures’. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, argued that the resolution, and the UN’s attitude towards Syria, was based on the “philosophy of confrontation”. Churkin attested that NATO misused a previous UN measure authorising the use of force to protect civilians in Libya to justify months of air strikes and to promote regime change. The most Russia was willing to concede was that Bashar’s administration should be quicker with implementing promised changes.
The United Nations did eventually, over a month later, manage to pass a resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on opposition protests across the country. However, to attain this result, the resolution had to be forced through the UN Human Rights Committee, in which no country holds the contentious veto power. The motion passed through the Human Rights Committee contained no mention of sanctions, only verbal censure, and still Russia abstained from voting in the Committee.
On 17 November, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed unequivocally that Russia was against Assad’s removal, as this would allegedly destroy an Arab League initiative that called for dialogue between the government and its foes.
On 18 November Russian warships were reported to have entered Syrian waters. Numerous observers claimed this was undoubtedly part of a bid to ward off foreign intervention into Syria. The move, to the vocal West, represented a stark message that Russia opposed international interference in the embattled regime’s affairs, surely a contradictory message given the presence of Russian armaments around Syria. To that effect, claims began to arise that Russia had armed Syria with weapons to defend itself against any NATO-masterminded intervention.
Despite these allegations, one Syrian official boasted that “Russia is our political shield.” This might be seen as part of the Syrian regime’s desire to project itself as protected under a Russian military umbrella; however in reality the movement of Russian warships is better understood in the broader context of current Russian disputes with the US and NATO over the latter’s impingement on the former’s traditional zones of influence via its proposed European missile defence system.
Nevertheless, the Russian government further strengthened its ties with the Syrian regime in late-November when it, along with Iran, China and India, lined up vessels for the purchase of Syrian oil. This move ran counter to multiple US and EU sanctions on the purchase of Syrian resources, including an import ban on the country’s oil imposed in September. While traditional buyers had been warded off, Russia moved to continue pouring money into the pockets of a regime that has otherwise been disconnected from the international community.
Equally, Russia’s purchases from Syria have the capability to undermine Arab League economic sanctions that were approved on the 27 November. Sanctions included cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank, suspending Arab government funding for projects in Syria and freezing government assets.
The central explanations for Russia’s support to Assad’s government are located in the two countries’ historical relations, as well as a number of Russian vested interests in Syria that are threatened by the current uprising. To Russia, the fall of Assad is viewed as parallel to a diminishing of its influence in Syria, in turn affecting its presence in the region as a whole.
The development of Russian interests in Syria
A crucial factor in the context of the current Syrian revolt is an arms deal made between Russia and Syria in May of 2010. Russia signed agreements confirming its supply of MiG-29 (Fulcrum) fighters and truck-mounted Pantsir (SA-22) surface-to-air missiles as well as anti-aircraft artillery systems to Syria. The amounts of capital involved in this deal were not elaborated upon, however, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Damascus was the first of its kind by a Russian national leader.
Naturally, this arms deal forms a commitment between Medvedev and Assad. Hence Russia sees the latter’s fall as commensurate with the loss of this income source. This is particularly credible as any successive government in Syria would likely be mindful of Russia’s benign behaviour towards its predecessor.
In August of 2011, as testimony to the aforementioned deal, Russia’s top arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, confirmed that it would continue its sale of weapons to Syria. This development came despite pleas from nearby Israel to reconsider its ongoing arms trade with Syria, fearing that such weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Russia, it seems, wishes to play both sides of the field, rhetorically supporting Israel while arming one of its most fervent critics. More recent agreements have in fact reinforced previous trading. Russia will soon be selling its Yak-130 light attack fighter planes to Assad’s army.
Accordingly, trade in arms between Russia and Syria linked to this deal and beyond soared to new heights in 2011. Anatoly Isaykin, general director of Rosoboronexport, stated that he expects to make deliveries on at least $9 billion worth of arms globally, an increase on last year’s sales of around $8.6 billion. Isaykin’s impetus behind bolstering weapons trade with Syria is the $4 billion of contracts lost when the United Nations instituted an arms embargo on Libya earlier this year. Although this figure may be an overstatement of the amount of money that could prospectively have been made from Libya through weapons trade, Isaykin was quoted as saying “Naturally we are trying to compensate for the losses we saw due to the events of North Africa”. It seems financial interests perpetually undermine humanitarian concerns, as affirmed by US envoy to the UN Susan Rice, who stated that Russia would “rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”
Mutual ties, however, can be traced back further than recent transactions. Notwithstanding contemporary arms trade and wider Russo-Syrian relations, the modern history between the two states also serves to shed some light on Russia’s current attitude towards Syria.
As the USSR, Russia played a key role in the development of Syria’s economy, building numerous industrial facilities and other infrastructural projects. Around a third of Syria’s electric power capacity and oil-processing facilities as well as irrigation services were assisted in their construction by Soviet cooperation with Damascus. The two countries have fostered economic ties and worked together towards greater economic liberalisation. However, these projects created large sums of debt, which had a profound effect on the two’s relationship.
As a result, Russo-Syrian relations during the Putin era remained relatively sour until one intriguing meeting between Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in January of 2005. Following this meeting in Moscow, relations improved dramatically. A personal connection was made between Assad and Putin; however, the reasons for this increase in cooperation extend further than a mere friendly handshake.
To understand the foundation of the cooperation that followed the 2005 meeting, it is worth looking back to an earlier liaison, during the rule of Bashar’s father. In July of 1999, a few months before Putin would rise to presidency in Russia, long-time Syrian ruler Hafez al-Assad paid a visit to Russia that would be his last. At this time, Damascus still owed Moscow a large amount of Soviet-era debt, amounting to as much as $12 billion; this debt would become the focus of the meeting. Moscow desired congenial relations with Damascus, despite the looming debt, for three reasons. Primarily, Russia saw itself in particular as capable of pushing Syria toward peace with Israel. Secondly, Tartus, on the Syrian coast, was the location of Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean. Finally, Damascus was prepared to pay unrestricted cash to Russia for the upgrade of its old Soviet weapons and the import of new Russian arms.
A loose deal was made at this time that envisioned Russia releasing pressure on Syria to repay its debts in return for becoming a long-term customer of Russian weaponry. However, despite this deal’s inception in 1999, it would not become a reality until the meeting of January 2005. It was at this meeting that it was announced that Moscow had agreed to write off 73 percent of Syria’s then $13.4 billion debt to Russia. In addition, Russia would be selling Damascus the Strelets air defence launcher units, developed for use with SA-18 and SA-16 missiles. Following this meeting, relations were solidified with regards to arms purchases in exchange for debt lenience. This arrangement is still manifesting itself to this day. The 2008 agreement that the base at Tartus be developed and modernized over the coming years, the arms deal of May 2010 and current transactions as well as Russia’s support for Syria more generally is a continuation of previous events taking place over the past decades.
This deepening of relations between the two countries continued with the advent of Russian oil explorations throughout Syria, as well as Russian oil companies such as Tatneft and Stroytransgaz building gas processing plants, oil refineries and petrochemical complexes within Syrian territory.
Throughout this cooperation, Syria nurtured a natural incentive and compulsion to turn to Moscow in times of need, an advantageous development for Moscow, who now has significant influence over Damascus. The combination of a heightened sense of insecurity on the part of the Syrians and increasing isolation from the West has endowed Russian arms and petroleum industries with unprecedented access to the Syrian polity.
One final factor that defines Moscow’s position on the Syrian conflict is the broader deterioration in the relationship between Russia and US-led NATO through current disputes over the United States’ and NATO’s proposed European missile defence system. Russia sees this system as a risk to its interests and influence in the region, and counterproductive to what they have called the ‘strategic nuclear balance’. As a result, on 23 November 2011 President Medvedev asked the Defence Ministry to put the missile attack early warning station in Kaliningrad on combat alert. Couple this hawkish posturing with Damascus and Moscow’s mutual distain for US hegemony and Syria can be viewed as another component in a wider disintegration of East-West relations.
Russia’s obstruction of any condemnation in regard to Assad’s handling of the current crisis, and its expansion of ties with the Syrian regime, is justified by capital and self-interest. However, it could be argued that Russia’s benign stance towards Syria is due not only to its vested interests in a strong relationship with Bashar al-Assad, but also due to the Syrian dictator’s eagerness to exaggerate his significance to Russia. Perhaps Assad is attempting to weave his war against the uprising into the more ubiquitous issue of Russia’s ongoing disputes with NATO and Western countries more broadly, to Syria’s advantage.
In any case, Russia’s continued collaboration with the Assad government bodes ill for the emancipative aspirations of the country’s population at large.