Posted July 8, 2012 by Andrew Haggard in Russia and Eurasia

Why Russia is Backing Assad

Despite the Russian Foreign Minister describing the situation in Syria as “increasingly alarming”4 as recently as June 2012, it appears unlikely that Russia would not halt its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Take for example that Russia has supplied Bashar al-Assad’s regime with arms throughout the 16th month uprising against Assad’s rule. Rosbornoexport, Russia’s state-owned military hardware exporting firm, has repeatedly said that it would honor all contracts signed between Syria and the firm. Given Rosbornoexport’s status a state-owned company, this means that the company’s actions have the effective backing of Russia’s political elite. Both the firm and senior Russian officials deny that any weapons sold to Syria could be used by the Assad regime against protesters and opposition military force. U.S. Secretary of Clinton decried those statements as “patently untrue” and revealed that Russia had recently supplied Syria with attack helicopters that were being used against the Syrian opposition. There are two primary reasons for transferring weapons to Assad’s regime. The first is money. The arms deals earn Moscow some serious cash with arms deals between 2007-2010 being valued in excess of $4 billion. The second is that arming Assad prolongs his rule and, if Assad can quell the uprising, helps to ensure stability no matter how barbaric or murderous the regime may be.

Russia’s military strategy also appears to play a factor in Russian calculations. In early 2009, reports emerged that Russia wanted to open naval bases in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. However, almost as soon as these reports emerged, some Russian officials decried them as false or that it was too early in the planning stages to determine where and when any Russian naval bases would be open abroad. Nonetheless, Russia has apparently made increasing its presence in Syria a priority. It has had a small presence in the port town of Tartus, which has served as a maintenance port for the Russian navy. Some point out Russia has not had a major presence at the Tartus port and suggest that, for Moscow, the base is of little importance. This analysis, however, neglects statements by senior Russian military officials. RIA Novosti quoted the former Russian naval chief Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky in August 2010 as saying, “Tartus will be developed as a naval base. The first stage of development and modernization will be completed in 2012.”3 Within the last few weeks, the Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief, Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, was quoted as explaining to an audience of university graduates that “As long as Russian Navy performs missions in the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean Sea, this base is critical for us.”5 The Russians seem unlikely to jeopardize the base by going against Assad unless the political and security situation changes drastically in Syria that the survivability of Assad diminishes severely. The base, after all, is the only Russian naval base in the Middle East and would provide Russia with a fallback base should Ukraine ever get another leader that demands the ouster of the Russian military from the base in Sevastopol.

Russia believes Damascus is its only remaining ally in the Arab world. Iraq has been significantly under the influence of the United States for much of the past decade. Meanwhile, Russia turned its back on another long-time ally – Mummar Qaddafi – when it abstained from voting on the resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya. Thus, as Vladimir Karyakin, a senior fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, said, “If we [Russia] lose such an ally, we will lose our foothold in the Middle East.”6 Thus, Russia is not in a position where it feels that it can permit even tacitly to allow the United Nations (or NATO) to intervene without seriously damaging its national interests in the Middle East.

Finally, if Assad falls, then the transition in Syria would likely be messy particularly if you consider that the Syrian opposition did not attempt serious political unification until the latter half of 2011. The Syrian opposition remains extremely fractured with walkouts and fistfights between the different opposition factions reported at a recent meeting in Cairo.1 Russia has serious reservations about what a post-Assad Syria might look like. Specifically, Moscow worries about the rise of Islamists throughout the Middle East and does not want to see Islamists come to power in Damascus. On his recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, President Vladimir Putin told the Israelis that the international community needed to think carefully before ousting Assad should his ouster precipitate the rise of Islamists. This argument may carry weight in some circles considering that if Assad falls without Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons being secured, the could be a danger of those weapons falling into the wrong hands. There is some solace in the fact that State Department officials told journalists earlier in the year that the U.S. Government was closely monitoring the Syrian sites with chemical and biological weapons.

Recent rhetoric from Putin and other Russian officials indicates that the Kremlin is still betting on Assad, but that the Russians are willing to consider a plan for transition in Syria. But, one should not bet that the Russians will not rush to find Assad’s replacement quite yet. Assad currently retains support of key players in Syria. The recent defection of Manaf Tlas, a Sunni brigadier general in the Syrian Republican Guard, has been hyped up as a major defection of a powerful military figure. This does not appear to the case, however. BG Tlas may have been at one point a powerful figured, but he ran afoul of Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, the commander of the Republican Guard, who proceeded to place Manaf Tlas under a form of house arrest and effectively stripped Tlas power to issue orders to his troops in May 2011.8 While this may be a symbolic score for the opposition, it won’t be enough in of itself to convince the Russians that Assad’s ability to remain in control through force has been jeopardized.

Andrew Haggard