There's more to Russia's support for Assad...

Russia's dispatch of warships from their bases in the Artic and Black Sea was not just a mere response of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to the American call for a regime change in Syria. The move conveyed, loud and clear, much more than the apparent. Kremlin was rather terse in telling the world, especially the Nato allies, that in no way would it play the role of a spectator if any direct efforts are made to topple President Bashar Al Assad. Russian move was enough to prove that Moscow's position on Syria is nonnegotiable and unrelenting.

The question, therefore, is: Pray what makes Russia so steadfast in its support for Syria and Assad? "Elementary my dear Watson". Russia's support for Syria and Assad is neither misplaced nor morally bankrupt, which many Western analysts like Nicholas Kosturos, a researcher at the Centre for American Progress, believe could be damaging to its long-term interests in Syria. In fact, it is motivated by "a complex mixture of political and economic interests in Syria, a fear of destabilization in the Middle East and at home, and a strict interpretation of state sovereignty."

When seen through the prism of objectivity and in proper perspective it would be clear that Moscow is not really blind in its support of Damascus. In fact, Kremlin, unlike the United States and West, is not opposed to the regime in Syria. It is, on the contrary opposed to the concept of regime change as it nurses a deep traditional view of the international order.

Therefore, Dimitri Simes, president and CEO, Centre for the National Interest, is right in his observation that the Russian emphasis is not on humanitarian principles, but on maintaining the sovereignty of existing states. After the end of the Cold War, most of the regimes that were changed were regimes that were friendly to Russia, whether you're talking about the Balkans, with the ouster of President Slobodan Milošević in Yugoslavia, or whether you're talking more recently about Libya.

Syria offers an excellent market for Russian arms and weapons. And arms export has long been the cornerstone of bonhomie between Moscow and Damascus. Between 2007 and 2010 the quantum of Russian arms deal with Syria registered a sharp rise, more than double, to $4.7 billion from $2.1 billion between 2003 and 2006. According to an annual report by Richard F. Grimmett, a veteran international security specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, Russia's arms export to Iran between 2007 and 2010 fell sharply to $300 million from $2.1 billion.

Syria's weapon purchase from Russia included some interesting items like Yak-130 light attack planes worth more than $550 million. Since 2005, Russian defence contracts with Syria have been on a roll and have grown by approximately $5.5 billion.

Russia has been modernising Syria's air force and air defences. A small country like Syria surprisingly account for over 5 per cent of Russia's global arms sale which makes it a significant customer though not the key customer.

Evidently, it would be naïve to believe that Russia would let such a lucrative market slip through its fingers, especially after the bitter experience it had in Libya. After the ouster and murder of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi Russia suffered a serious economic blow as Gaddafi's successors in Libya refused to honour deals with Russia. Mounting international sanctions against Iran has forced Tehran to curtail its arms purchases from Russia. Moscow lost two very important and lucrative arms markets and is justifiably unwilling to let go the third one.

Russian leadership fears that Assad's fall will jeopardise its only Mediterranean naval base in the port city of Tartus. This only remaining Soviet-era port in the heartland of Syria's Alawite minority Muslim sect represents Kremlin's most crucial stake in the country.

"While recent reports have downplayed the military potential of the Tartus port, an examination of history reveals the Tartus base served as a major logistics location for the Soviet military during the Cold War, especially after the Soviet forces left Egypt. Indeed, recent reports of Moscow sending amphibious ships and Russian marines to Syria via the port at Tartus only confirm its utility as a forward base in a region lacking Russian military presence." To the Russian the Tartus facility offers deep-water port capabilities that allow "docking nuclear submarines as well as access to a sophisticated system of inland roads and highways."

Russian investment to build up the Tartus facility has been staggering. A fortune has been poured into the base dredging it for years and "involved Russia cancelling billions of dollars worth of debt incurred by Syria during the Soviet era."

In view of this scenario, opinion expressed by of Nikolas K. Gvosdev, professor of national-security studies at the US Naval War College, is perhaps closest to reality. Perhaps if the Syrian opposition had, early on, announced its adherence to what might be termed the Guantanamo standard, things might have been different. Despite his implacable anti-Americanism, Fidel Castro never interfered with or abrogated the lease the United States has for the naval facilities at Guantanamo Bay. An announcement by the Syrian opposition that it was prepared to honour all contracts and arrangements of its predecessor might have led Moscow to adopt a more neutral stance.

If this had been done early on, the Russians might have been persuaded to support a Yemen-style transfer of power, which would have satisfied the U.S. objective of seeing Assad removed from office and would have protected some of Russia's key equities. But now, the window for that sort of arrangement has ended. And it is important to note that Russia's perspective on the Syrian revolution now is being shaped by events that have little to do with the Middle East.       

To be concluded...

The author is the Opinion Editor of Times of Oman.


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