Syria is an important customer for Russian armaments and hosts a recently reopened Russian naval supply base at Tartus, but what appears to be driving the stiff resistance to Western and Arab efforts to remove Assad has more to do with perceptions of Russian prestige than with the actual details of such transactions.
“Russian leaders were frustrated — maybe humiliated — after they supported Resolution 1973 of the Security Council,” Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst and deputy editor of the online publication Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said Tuesday, referring to the U.N. action against Libya that led to the NATO bombing campaign.
Russian officials contend that NATO misused the resolution to pursue a much broader air war than it envisioned, and they are apparently wary of the same thing happening now in Syria.
“What’s going on in the Syrian situation,” Golts said, “is some kind of revenge.”
The deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, warned Tuesday that the proposed U.N. resolution puts Syria on a “path to civil war.”
As Russia’s presidential election approaches, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an almost certain winner but a leader who has been rocked by continuing protests here, has ramped up the anti-Western and especially anti-American rhetoric. He accused the State Department of instigating the street demonstrations against him in Moscow, and, Golts said, he is sure that foreigners are whipping up the Syrian opposition.
“Mr. Putin reads all that’s going on in Syria as a Western conspiracy,” Golts said. “Russian leaders don’t believe that some kind of public movement can arise by itself.”
It may not simply be cynical electioneering.
“There’s a paranoid feeling that Russia itself could be a target,” said Mark Katz, an expert on Russian and Middle Eastern relations at George Mason University. Political disturbances on the streets of Moscow join with a growing fear that the Arab Spring could spread as far as Russia’s restive, and Muslim, North Caucasus region.
“They may see themselves as under the gun,” Katz said. “It’s moving in their direction — in the wrong direction.”
Syria became an important Soviet client after Egypt expelled Russian advisers in the 1970s. Relations between Moscow and Damascus cooled after the collapse of the USSR, and the naval base went unused, but in 2005, as Syria became more isolated from the West over events in Lebanon, it turned to Russia again for support.
After Russia forgave 75 percent of Syria’s outstanding debt, the Middle Eastern nation now buys between 7 percent and 10 percent of Russian military exports, Golts said. The two countries signed a $550 million deal in December for the delivery of 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 Mitten combat trainers, the Kommersant newspaper reported Monday. Russian energy companies also have contracts there, though the scope of business is not in itself that large.
But Russian leaders believe they must defend their country’s interests in Syria for the sake of credibility, Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy expert here, suggested in an essay for RIA Novosti.
“The military-industrial complex employs many people, and the authorities are not interested in getting on their bad side, especially on the eve of the election campaign,” he wrote. “Moreover, the image of a country that easily abandons its commitments under pressure from political circumstances is not good for its commercial reputation, and the Russian defense sector has respectable clients in addition to its problematic partners.”
Russia’s official position is that it wants to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria. It does not insist that Assad must stay, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“The final decision must be solely Syrian. Syrians themselves — all groups of Syrians — should gather at a negotiating table and hammer out a deal,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Sydney.
Russia is trying to head off international intervention, on the grounds that it would make the conflict worse, said Mikhail Roshchin, an expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies here, speaking in an interview with Voice of Russia radio. Russia is also afraid, he said, that if Assad’s government goes, an Islamist regime could take its place.
“These regimes are much better than the alternative, which is chaos or Islamists,” is how Katz sums up the Russian position. “And the Americans don’t get it.”
Lavrov has said that there is nothing Russia can do if an armed intervention takes place but that it won’t be a party to it. If Assad goes, the defense contracts will fall through, but, Katz said, “It’s not about arms sales to Syria; it’s about Russia.”
For all its alarm over conspiracies, the Kremlin may also have calculated that Russia will not suffer too much blowback for having supported Assad. A new government, if it transpires, will have more important things to worry about than resentment toward Moscow.