Lebanese and Syrian protesters burn a Russian flag and poster with images of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Stringer/Reuters)
While Western and Arab countries struggle to find a way to assist the Syrian people, Moscow is continuing to do all it can to save the Assad regime of Syria. Speaking on a trip to Azerbaijan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Syrian opposition wouldn’t be able to overwhelm government forces even if it was supplied with weapons from abroad. He warned that a foreign military intervention would lead to even more disastrous consequences for Syria and further urged other nations not to arm the Syrian opposition. Lavrov’s statements came just days after Russia and China boycotted the latest “Friends of Syria” gathering in Istanbul — a weak diplomatic effort aimed at assisting the Syrian opposition.
That the U.S. and most Western nations are at odds with Russian policy should not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, the manner in which Moscow is shamelessly pushing its case demonstrates the seriousness with which they view the Syrian issue. Take, for instance, the Capitol Hill briefing on Tuesday afternoon held by the Russian embassy and hosted by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL). Led by embassy officials Anton Vushkarnik and Sergey Kuznetsov, they refused to even acknowledge that Bashar al-Assad was killing his own people. They brazenly defended their ongoing sale of arms to the Assad regime by citing that there was no international law that prevents such sales — even though it was Russia and China that vetoed the very UN Security Council resolution that would have put the ban in place. In pressing their point, the Russian officials even dusted off the tired old canard and drew an equivalency between the killing of civilians in Syria and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
But Russia isn’t merely using words to assist Assad or providing diplomatic cover as it wields its Security Council veto powers. They have sent Special Forces to Syria to conduct “anti-terrorism” missions and Russian military advisers are training the Syrian army. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly explained, “When we supply the weapons, we have to provide the training.” Then there is the deployment of a third Russian warship to the region — a guided-missile destroyer named the smetlivy, which is scheduled to dock at the Syrian port of Tartus in the coming days. Two other Russian warships arrived at the Russian naval base on March 19, joining up with a Russian naval reconnaissance and surveillance ship already anchored in Tartus. All of which follows the Russian ship that carried tons of munitions to Syria in January.
So much for the Russian “reset” President Obama has been doggedly pursuing since coming to office. In fact, Russian policy vis-à-vis Syria provides yet another stark example of Team Obama’s inability to anticipate the diplomatic gridlock that was bound to arise. A year of moribund diplomacy with Russia was wasted on the Syrian file because the Obama administration was unable to accurately assess Russian interests.
First, there are economic interests. Russia’s longstanding ties to Syria generate billions of dollars in arms sales. Moscow is the number one arms supplier in the Middle East, the world’s second largest arms exporter, and it continues to supply Damascus with advanced missile systems. To put it in perspective, Russian arms sales to Syria and Algeria alone account for one-eighth of its portfolio of worldwide arms sales, which totals $48 billion a year. In fact, according to the independent Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade, Syria is Russia’s seventh-largest customer with sales amounting to 10 percent of Russia’s total weapons exports. UN sanctions against Syria could cost Moscow $5 billion in arms sales on top of the $4 billion of contracts lost when the UN placed an arms embargo on Libya last year. In addition to that, the only Russian naval base in the Middle East, Tartus, lies in Syria and Moscow has been restoring the base since 2008. Russia has also demonstrated a willingness to pay $2 billion to upgrade its aging Soviet weapons as well as sell Syria new ones. In 2005, Russia forgave 73 percent of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt. New Russian-Syrian arms deals are predicated on Damascus not repaying its old Soviet-area debt in return for Syria’s continued purchase of Russian weapons. Damascus has proven to be Moscow’s loyal customer.
Then there is the geopolitical dimension. The year of Arab upheaval has damaged Russia’s interests as regimes friendly towards Moscow have fallen. It sees the future options of either the rise of Islamist governments or the establishment of Arab democracies aligned with the West as troubling developments. Therefore, Syria and Iran represent the stopgap for Russian interests in the Middle East.
Moscow has an overriding interest to fashion itself as an influential power in the Middle East that competes with the West. That is why Iran and Syria are the two keys to Russia’s regional relevance. And in the same manner that Syria defined its role in the Middle East as being the regional spoiler, so too has Russia defined itself as the country that can prevent the kind of progress Washington would like to see. Moscow’s power initiative in the region is to make itself the mediator — and that makes Syria central to that strategy. Russian President Vladimir Putin understands that his relationship with Syria gives Moscow a seat at the table for any Middle East peace initiatives, guaranteeing that he will be able to punch far beyond his diplomatic weight.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian protests last March, Russia has undermined every possibility of external intervention. The fact that Russia is continuing to arm the Assad regime makes the Kremlin complicit in the growing list of Syrian government atrocities. Instead of wasting resources trying to convince Moscow to abandon its Middle East interests in order to press ahead with more UN resolutions, Washington would do well to assert its role as world leader and work with those countries that have a common interest in Syria.
Kofi Annan’s plan and the “Friends of Syria” meetings are a slow start — coming as they did over a year since the protests began — but they are not enough. At the “Friends of Syria” gathering, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reiterated that “the world will not waiver, Assad must go, and the Syrian people must be free to choose their own path forward.” But non-lethal support and financial sanctions will not bring down the Assad regime. Absent the desire for a more kinetic military approach, the best option Washington has is to sidestep the Russian roadblock and begin training and arming the Free Syrian Army.