License to Kill in Syria – Why Russia supports Syria’s Assad

Posted: July 15, 2012 in License to kill in Syria

As casualties mount before the brutal onslaught of Bashar al-Assad’s forces against Syria’s pro-democracy protesters, the Russians are being unhelpful again. In Washington and Brussels, even habitually cool diplomats have been showing frustration.
On Jan. 31, Russia joined with China to block a plan presented to the U.N. Security Council by Morocco and supported by the Arab League that called on Assad to hand power to his deputy, who would then call a general election. If Assad did not comply within 15 days, the resolution threatened undisclosed “further measures.”

Moscow already had vetoed one resolution denouncing Assad’s use of force in October. As Western leaders sought to pry the Syrian dictator from power, his old friends in Moscow sent an aircraft-carrying missile cruiser to Syrian waters in a show of support last month and shipped his troops a consignment of Yakhont cruise missiles.

Such actions are just the latest in a litany of obstructionist maneuvers and spoiler ploys whose goal often appears merely to undermine Western international objectives. From Washington, Moscow has seemed determined to soften or delay sanctions on Iran aimed at curbing its nuclear ambitions, to stall in talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons, to intimidate pro-democracy movements in neighboring states and to egg on anti-American dictators such as Hugo Chavez.

Western commentators typically attribute such behavior to Putin’s personal paranoia or to attempts to rekindle the nation’s wounded pride and assert Russia’s superpower status. Look a little closer, however, and Russia’s actions seem motivated more by calculated — albeit sometimes miscalculated — realpolitik than by psychological impulses.

First, strategic interests are at stake. In Tartus, Syria hosts the sole remaining Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, currently being refurbished by 600 Russian technicians after long disuse. To have to give up this Middle Eastern beachhead would be a shame, as far as the Russians are concerned.
Second, although limited, Russia has real commercial interests in Syria. Contracts to sell arms to Damascus — both those signed and under negotiation — total $5 billion. Having lost $13 billion due to international sanctions on Iran and $4.5 billion in canceled contracts to Libya, Russia’s defense industry is already reeling. Besides arms exports, Russian companies have major investments in Syria’s infrastructure, energy and tourism sectors, worth $19.4 billion in 2009.
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