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Russia's Syrian red line: a view from Moscow

Russia's Syrian red line: a view from Moscow

Just a few weeks ago, in September of this year, it seemed almost inevitable that the US (probably soon to be joined by some of its Western allies) would engage in yet another military operation in the Middle East – this time in Syria, and many analysts were already calculating the risks of an all-encompassing conflict in the region.  Then, on 14 September, Russia and the US announced a deal that removal of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons would avert a US strike against Damascus.

Russia has always been the staunchest supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government outside the Middle East – in fact, unlike in the instances of Western operations in Iraq and Libya, the West had discovered that Russia’s support of the local leader was firm.  This has caused many in the West to question why the Kremlin was unwilling to move on Assad, while it allowed the West to have Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. Some commentators explained it with what they described as the intrinsic anti-American and anti-Western attitude of the Russian political elites.  We do not think that such an intrinsic attitude exists.  The Russian political elites own numerous residential properties in the West, including in the US, keep their savings in the West and send their children to Western schools and universities.  It is true that, for domestic consumption, the Kremlin has a cast of eccentric talking heads who, as required, rave at pro-government rallies and on television about American imperialism, Western decadence and Russian moral superiority.  Their mission, however, is to influence the Russian audiences’ perception of the Russian political opposition as a Western installation detrimental to the national interest.  In reality, Russia cooperates with the US when it sees an alignment of interests, as in Afghanistan.

It was also said that Vladimir Putin dislikes the very idea of international sponsorship for a popular uprising seeking regime change after the US and the EU supported ‘coloured revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine.  This may be true but it does not explain Russia’s withdrawal from Libya and its indifference to the Tunisian and Egyptian developments.  Putin is definitely not reincarnating Nicholas I who readily sent Russian troops to help Franz Joseph I of Austria crush the Hungarian revolution in 1848.

Another popular view holds that Syria is important to Russia as an arms buyer.  Indeed, Syria is an important customer, with $4 billion worth of long-term contracts in 2011 but it falls far behind India, Algeria, China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Venezuela.  Its disappearance as a buyer would be felt but the Russian military-industrial complex would  survive this pain relatively easily. We have also encountered the view that Putin’s influential friends in the Russian state-owned arms exports agency are likely to receive hefty kickbacks from Assad and, therefore, by protecting the Syrian government, the Russian president protects his friends’ corrupt business.   We agree that arms trading – and Russian arms trading, in particular – is not the world’s most transparent business but we also believe that corruption in this business works the other way around: it is the seller who usually bribes the buyer rather than vice versa.  Yes, one might argue that, under the existing circumstances, it is a seller’s market and no other country will sell arms to Assad but then these kickbacks are a short-term opportunity anyway. It is often said that any destabilisation in the Middle East helps the Russian economy benefit from high oil prices.  This argument may be partially correct, except that the Kremlin has already realised that the positive effect of high oil prices on the Russian economy has been exhausted – and Syria is neither a major oil producer, nor an important existing transit country anyway. A somewhat more plausible explanation, in our view, is that, should those opposition forces sponsored by Qatar and Saudi Arabia prevail in Syria, these countries might want to build a gas pipeline to Europe via Syria and Turkey.  Intrigues against competing pipeline projects – such as Nabucco and Trans-Caspian – have been a top priority for Russian gas diplomacy for well over a decade, and Russia has enjoyed some success with delaying or blocking competitor projects.  At its own end, Russia has showed commitment to completing and bringing to full capacity its Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines, while Qatar has heavily invested in the LNG industry.  The latter allows Qatar to enjoy greater flexibility with selling its gas, as it is able to supply spot markets across the globe. An even more important reference is the one to the Russian naval facility in Tartus – Russia’s last outside the former Soviet Union and its only repair and replenishment spot in the Mediterranean.  It was reported that Russia has, since 2009, been conducting works to expand the facility in order to make it accessible for larger ships – and, allegedly, for nuclear submarines.  However, no matter how important the Tartus facility can be for Russia, even the threat of losing it as a result of a potential regime change, is not the main factor determining the Kremlin’s support for Assad. Our explanation of the main cause for Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad may, at a first glance, sound like a truism: Russia has befriended Assad because he is a friend.  And he is one of Russia’s very few friends in the world.  Since 1971, when Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad became president, Soviet and then Russian diplomacy has established truly warm and cordial links with the Syrian political elite. Muammar Qaddafi may have done deals with Russia but he was not a friend.  In the perception of the Russian establishment, he was a freak wearing strange clothes and travelling around the world with a tent and an entourage of female bodyguards.  When he travelled to Moscow, he would only agree to meet with Putin in that infamous tent which he pitched in the Kremlin grounds. Putin was not fully certain who actually hosted the meeting. Saddam Hussein was not a friend (although his foreign minister Tariq Aziz, née Mikhail Yuhanna, was popular in Russia).  It is true that when Saddam was young, he formed a relationship with Evgeny Primakov, a young Soviet intelligence agent in the Middle East, who later became head of Russian foreign intelligence (from 1991 to 1996), Russian foreign minister (from 1996 to 1998) and Russian prime minister (from 1998 to 1999).  According to some accounts, Primakov helped Hussein to stay in power in 1991, but Primakov was an enemy of Boris Yeltsin’s entourage who persuaded the latter to fire him in 1999.  After Primakov’s dismissal, Russians perceived Hussein as paranoid, unpredictable and unreliable – an Arabic reincarnation of Joseph Stalin in his late years. The Assad family, by  contrast, have always been true friends with whom Russian officials and diplomats have always found it easy to socialise.  Under Hafez al-Assad, the Damascus officialdom looked almost like ‘our closest brothers from Bulgaria’, to use a Soviet-era epithet, or even like Communist Party functionaries in the USSR’s own southern republics.  Bashar al-Assad, with his affinity for well-cut Italian suits and, more importantly, with his originally somewhat similar governance style and popularity to Putin’s, is a soulmate. Russia can relatively easily agree to negotiate the fate of its situational allies but, unless she is extremely weak as she was in the early 1990s, her friendships are not easily negotiable. This is not just about personal chemistry between the leaders or the diplomats.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, the majority of its satellites ran away from Russia’s influence at the first opportunity.  Outside the former USSR, Russia, by late 1990s, was able to count just Serbia (which was not a Soviet-era satellite) in Europe, Venezuela (after Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution) in the Americas, and Syria in the Middle East as friends.  Russia’s logic is that a betrayal of any of them could be crucially detrimental to its ability to have friends on the international stage.  Particularly, given that there is a risk that parties friendly to Saudi Arabia could replace al-Assad. Unofficially, Russia suspects Saudi Arabia of supporting Islamist militants in North Caucasus – and it very well remembers the sad photograph of Mohammad Najibullah’s tortured dead body hanging from a lamp post in Kabul. This photograph is Russian foreign policy’s worst nightmare and its call to conscience. If Russia left Bashar al-Assad alone, it would cross a red line which it feels unable to cross. Besides, saving Assad from a US military strike turned out to be a perfect opportunity for Russia to remind the West that it remains one of the world’s powers. By Oleg Babinov Director, Business Intelligence – Head of Moscow Office Photo:
Published: 27th November 2013