Why Does Russia Support the Syrian Regime

Blocking regime change in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) receives Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) during their meeting in Moscow's Kremlin, January 25, 2005.
Salah Malkawi/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Russia’s support for the Syrian regime in the face of the anti-government uprising in Syria and intense pressure from Western and Gulf Arab countries is motivated by extensive trade and military interests that go back to the Soviet era.

Russian officials may not think the world of President Bashar al-Assad and his handling of the crisis, but they will not give up easily on their most loyal Arab ally.

Assad Family: Moscow’s Old Friend

Syria was at odds with the West almost since independence in 1946, and the animosity deepened with growing American support for Israel, Syria’s chief rival. It was therefore only logical that leaders in Damascus, vulnerable to its more powerful neighbors, would look to Moscow for support.

Under late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000), Syria’s client-patron relationship with the Soviet Union developed into one of the most enduring strategic partnerships in the Middle East, one that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, and coming to power of Bashar al-Assad in 2000.

Russia’s Interests in Syria

But it’s not sentimentality for old friends, Russia has interests in Syria to protect:

  • Arms industry: War is good for business. In 2011, Russia’s weapons industry exported around $1 billion worth of arms to Syria, and there are some $4 billion in outstanding contracts. Reuters has reported an increase in shipments of small arms since the beginning of the uprising.
  • Trade ties: Other Russian businessmen have plenty to lose in Syria. As Syria’s manufacturing sector crumbles under the weight of sanctions (and years of mismanagement), the regime depends on imports of petroleum products, grains, electrical equipment and other Russian goods. In fact, trade between Syrian and Russia shot up by 58% to $1.97 billion in 2011, according to Russian sources.
  • Tartous port: The most tangible prize Moscow gets from this relationship is access to a naval base in Syria’s port city of Tartous, Russia’s only navy outpost in the Mediterranean. Cooperation goes back to 1971, and in 2008 Tartous was converted into a permanent Russian base, with ambitious plans for modernization of facilities. Who would’ve thought back then…

All of which makes this a serious game for Kremlin’s policy architects. If Assad is replaced by a Western-friendly government, would Russia’s contracts and investments be honored? And what of Tartous?

The Principle of Non-Interference

There are broader issues at stake. Non-interference in internal affairs of sovereign states is one of central tenets of Russia’s diplomacy. Like China, Russia feels this principle was blatantly violated in NATO’s campaign against late Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011.

“Regime change” in Syria is a red line for Moscow, and no UN Security Council resolution that comes close to authorizing an international military intervention against Assad can hope to bypass a Russian veto.

Read more on options for intervention in Syria.

How Far is Russia Willing to Go for Assad?

But Assad’s handling of the uprising has been far from convincing, and the regime doesn’t seem to have a credible exit strategy, save for fighting to the last bullet.

I am positive Moscow recognizes this reality and will look for a face-saving formula that will guarantee it some kind of role in Syria, without allowing its regional prestige being dragged down by a doomed regime. Russia’s support for the peace plan of joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was one of the means of reaching a political solution in Syria.

In May 2012, the New York Times reported Russia and US began exploring another scenario, the Yemeni transition model: Assad resigns and is replaced by a close associate who maintains parts of the regime while launching genuine but gradual democratization.

It sounds good in an ideal world but I wonder whether Syria is already way beyond any compromise solution. But until Russia decides Assad’s fate is definitively sealed, those arms shipments will keep docking at Tartous port.

  • Read more: Russia's Influence in the Middle East
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