RSIS presents the following commentary Raising the stakes: Russian military support
for Syria by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click
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Commentaries, at RSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg
No. 181/2011 dated 9 December 2011
Raising the stakes:
Russian military support for Syria
By James M. Dorsey
Russia is stepping up military support for Syria; reinforcing its opposition to international
efforts to force President Bashar al-Assad to halt his eight-month-old crackdown
on anti-government protesters. In so doing, Russia is turning the Syrian crisis into an
international test of wills.
RUSSIA IS reinforcing its opposition to international efforts to tighten the economic
embargo on Syria by sending a Russian battle group of three vessels led by an aircraft
carrier to the eastern Mediterranean. The flotilla, expected in the region at the end of
this week, is likely to dock in the Syrian port of Tartus, Russia’s only naval base in the
Mediterranean, before the end of the month, according to Russian defence officials.
The arrival of the flotilla comes on the heels of the delivery to Syria of supersonic
anti-ship Yakhont cruise missiles as part of an agreement signed in 2007 and a Russian
promise to go ahead with the training of Syrian personnel in the use the state-of-the-art
As Syria teeters on the brink of civil war, Russia, in sending a flotilla to the eastern
Mediterranean and maintaining arms supplies to Syria, is in effect bolstering President
Bashar Al Assad’s resolve not to give in to international demands that he halts his
brutal eight-month-old crackdown on anti-government protesters.
That corner of the Mediterranean is already being patrolled by US 6th Fleet warships led
by an aircraft carrier. By raising the bar, Russia is signalling its determination to foil
attempts to strangle the Syrian leader’s regime and also hopes to reduce the
chances of a military intervention in Syria, possibly spearheaded by Turkey. In a defiant
show of force, Syria last week held war games that included test-firing of missiles and
air force and ground troop operations.
Capitalising on influence in Damascus
In an ironic twist, Russia’s breaking of ranks with the international community could
position it alongside the Arab League as the only power potentially capable of coaxing
Assad to moderate his hard line towards his opponents. Russia has consistently resisted
efforts in the United Nations Security Council to condemn Syria as has China, which
however, unlike Russia, has declared its support for sanctions imposed by the Arab League.
Syria this week conditionally agreed to allow Arab observers into the country to monitor
compliance with a government ceasefire in a bid to fend off stepped up Arab sanctions and an
Arab push for UN involvement in the crisis. With Syria having repeatedly broken its earlier
pledges to halt the crackdown, it remains to be seen how serious Assad is this time around.
Moreover, the battle lines in Syria have hardened to a degree that opposition forces may be
unwilling to settle for anything less than Assad’s demise.
Russia’s defiant resistance to allowing Syria to be internationally isolated is fuelled by the fact
that it has far more to lose politically, strategically and economically in Syria than it did in
Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen - the four Arab nations whose autocratic leaders were this
year swept aside by the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North
The naval base in Tartus is operated by the Russian military under an agreement signed in
1971 between Syria and the then Soviet Union even though the Soviet Navy’s Mediterranean
Fleet was disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, the port’s floating
docks fell into disrepair and Russian naval vessels rarely visited. That changed four years
ago when Russia decided to renovate the base and turn it again into its window on the
Mediterranean. Some 600 Russian technicians are upgrading facilities, dredging the harbour,
and preparing it for Russian Navy port calls of which the Admiral Kuznetsov would be the first.
Political risk outstrips economic and strategic stakes
Russia’s economic stakes in Syria are equally high. Russia has concluded US$4 billion
worth of arms contracts with Syria and has invested some $20 billion in Syrian infrastructure,
energy and tourism. Russia’s Stroitransgaz is building a natural gas processing plant and
supporting an Arab gas pipeline while Tatneft, which is already pumping Syrian oil,
announced earlier this year that it would invest $12.8m in oil exploration near the Iraqi border.
If the economic and strategic stakes are high, they pale from Russia’s perspective compared
to the potential fallout if Assad’s opponents prevail in the face of a crackdown that has so far
cost 4,000 lives, wounded thousands, and led to the arrest of even greater numbers. Russian
forces have this year killed some 300 militants in the northern Caucus, a patchwork of ethnic
and religious groups where Islamists regularly attack Russian targets. They could well be
encouraged by the toppling of Assad. Alternatively, a Syria that disintegrates as a result of
civil war could equally inspire militants in Russian republics like Chechnya, Dagestan and
Syrian acceptance of Arab League observers, if implemented, offers Russia the opportunity to
align support for Assad with Arab efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis peacefully. The question
is whether a negotiated solution that seeks to meet protesters’ demands for an end to
repression and corruption and a transition to democracy, is possible as long as Assad
remains in office given that the Syrian leader and his cohorts are unlikely to risk a political
opening after so much bloodshed.
At the very least, Russia hopes that by positioning itself alongside the Arab League as a
key player with influence in Damascus it will be able to protect its interests by shaping
whatever negotiated resolution is achieved whether or not it maintains Assad in office. The
alternative - the overthrow of the Assad regime - would constitute a significant setback for
Russia not only in the Eastern Mediterranean but also across the Middle East and North Africa.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
(RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist covering the Middle
East for over 30 years.
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