Russia’s support for the Assad regime is perplexing. A Moscow-based think tank published a report that indicated that Russia has few, if any, national interests to defend in Syria. So, why then, has Russia continued to support Assad’s waning dictatorial rule?
Historically, Syria is the closest ally of Russia in the Middle East. Russian presence in the Arab country predates WWI. In 1893, a Russian consular office was established in Damascus. By 1905, the Imperial Russian Orthodox Society had opened 74 schools in Syria. The Bolshevik Revolution put a brief end to the Russian presence in the region, after which a strong relationship between the two countries emerged once more. In 1925, Russia played a powerful role in establishing Syrian Communist Party. In 1946, Russia formerly recognized Syria as an independent state.
Ties between the two countries saw their golden days in the Cold War when Syria chose to side with Russia against Western powers. Between 1955 and 1958, Syria received about $294 million from Moscow for military and economic assistance, and during Assad Sr’s rule, thousands of Syrian military officials were trained in Russia as a gesture of support and booming ties.
These gestures of support also resulted in arms trade between the two countries. A report published by US Congressional Service pointed out that Soviet military sales to Syria in the 1970s and 80′s were so extensive, they accounted for 90% of all military arms exports from the Soviet Union, making the Soviet Union a main supplier of arms for Syria. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arms supply to Syria fell, but Syria continued to seek purchases through satellite states. Russia’s current contracts with Syria for arms are estimated to be worth 1.5 billion US dollars, comprising 10% of Russia’s global arms sales.
Besides arms trade, Russia has significant investments in Syria. Moscow Times reported that Russian exports to Syria were valued at $1.1 billion in 2010 and its investments in the country were valued at $19.4 billion in 2009. Furthermore, Russian firms have invested heavily in Syrian infrastructure and energy. Stroitransgaz, a natural gas facility construction company, has the largest Russian operation in Syria. In 2010, it was involved in projects worth $1.1 billion and had a staff of 80 Russians working in Syria.
When the Syrian conflict began in early 2011, there were calls by the international community for Russia to stop their arms supply to Syria and back away from supporting the dictatorial regime. Russia refused to do so, saying that it was bound by contractual agreements. Since then, Russia has been among the biggest supporters of the Syrian regime at the United Nations. Because of this, Russia has been continuously singled out by several nations for playing a strong role in massacres committed by the Syrian government.
If the Russian government has no national interests to defend in Syria, then it makes sense to look at the historical significance of this relationship. Supporting the Assad regime may be the last chance Russia may have of maintaining the Soviet-era presence in the region. There is also the embarrassment of the Libyan confrontation fresh in the minds of the upper echelons of the Russian power circles. Russia had abstained from voting for a military intervention in Libya. As a result of the military intervention that went ahead anyway, the old regime (which was one of the biggest arms customers of Russian technology) was replaced by a new one which was hostile to the Russian government.
Russia has also been accused of siding with Assad in an attempt to boost its own world standing and legitimacy of its internal politics – which is taking a more and more authoritarian direction every day. Furthermore, Russia has been accused of aiding the Syrian military in action against Syrian rebels, an accusation that Russia has denied vehemently.
One must also not forget the importance of the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea Fleet is located in the Syrian port of Tartus, and naturally, this port is of key importance to the Russian government. What remains to be seen is what the future of this port will look like because Russia is obviously rubbing the Syrian rebels the wrong way – and their resistance has not wavered over the months, despite the mounting casualties in the country.
Naturally, Russia is wary of the possibility that it might not have a strong position in Syria if the current regime succumbs to the pressure of the uprising. About three days ago, Russian foreign minister announced that Russia was ready to meet with the leaders of the Syrian opposition. This hesitant gesture to forge a new relationship with what may be the future of the Syrian government was rejected by leaders of Syrian opposition forces, mostly because of Russian backing of the current regime. Russia, though, played it safe. While it acknowledged the fact that it was ready to meet with Syrian opposition, it did not formerly recognize the opposition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
There will come a time will Russia will formerly have to pick a side – and the direction of the tides with the current Syrian regime do not seem to be so favorable for Russia. It may be wise to act now, to stop the covert supplies to the Syrian military and to acknowledge the fact that the opposition to the regime is here to stay – because it may not have the same future of the Islamist uprising of the 1960s where Russian support enabled the movement to be crushed before it ever fully started.