During all the ups and downs in the present crises engulfing Middle East, one thing has remained the same –the unflinching support of Russia for its long-time ally Syria’s Bashar ul Assad. Russia has consistently provided Assad with support at the United Nations, and is also the key arms supplier for the Syrian regime. Russia has many fold interests in backing Assad.
- Ties between Russia and Syria are more than four decades old which started during the Cold War when a newly independent Syria aligned with the Eastern bloc led by former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Soon after taking power in a coup in 1970, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father who had got training to fly fighter jets in the Soviet Union, paid first official visit to Moscow and signed a multimillion dollars arms deal with Russia. When Bashar came to power, Russia became the biggest supplier of arms to Syria and got permission to build a resupply station at the port of Tartus. It is now not only Russia’s sole remaining naval base in the Middle East and on the Mediterranean Sea but also an important Russian military-intelligence base and listening post.
- Russia is interested to bog the U.S. down for sapping its energies and checking American hegemony in the unfolding New Cold War as well as gain time to strengthen its presence and influence in its sphere of influence which is constantly under threat from internal dissensions and external machinations.
- Russia wants to give a message to the world in general and the Americans and their allies in particular that Soviet Union may be a thing of the past, Russia is as relevant in today’s world as it has been in the past. Whatever shape the new world order may take, Russia remains indispensable to any scheme of things devised for solving global problems, whether anyone likes it or not. Full stop.
- It also has long-standing strategic interests in Syria; Russia has been openly augmenting its Black Sea Fleet and intends to increase its strength by procuring more than 80 new ships during the next five years. It is also building a second naval base for this fleet at its Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. In this power play, its naval base at Tartus in Syria is the lynchpin of Russia’s strategic calculations. If it falls Russian warships would have to traverse the narrow waters of the Bosporus, under control of Turkey — a NATO member.
- Defending Assad will enhance credibility of new Russia, inheritor of Soviet Empire, as a defender of its friends in the Region, known for valuing loyalty more than pragmatism. Having backed Mr Assad thus far, he has earned the respect of the Arab leaders and any weakness at this movement by Russia would have been the last thing it could afford. After losing out to the USA in the 1990s, the Russians have made a substantial comeback in the Middle East, particularly by signing a huge $3.5 billion arms sale with Egypt.
- It wants to stop the so-called ‘regime change dramas’ which, it genuinely fears, might be enacted in its sphere of influence or in Russia itself. The Kremlin watched the Arab Spring in horror, seeing uprisings against authoritarian leaders as American conspiracies. While Mr Putin harbors no particular personal affection for Mr Assad, the Syrian leader has become a symbol of resisting “colour revolutions” and attempts at “regime change”.
- Russia wants to keep the Middle East in turmoil for its financial vested interests also–, to keep the oil prices high and ensuring that Europe relies on Russia for its energy needs. At the same time it does not want to lose lucrative arms export market as it has already lost more than four billion US $ worth of weapons contracts when the Libyan regime fell. It does not want to repeat the same in Syria. Russian companies have invested around 20 billion dollars in Syrian oil and gas industry which will be lost if Assad regime falls. Russia has long been keen to protect Gazprom’s lucrative gas sales to the European market, and the Soyuzneftegaz-Syria deal is one way for Russia to hedge its bets regarding the sources of gas it can sell to Europe.
- Finally, like Chinese leadership, Russians are also wary of the emerging Islamic fundamentalism which can cause existential threat to Russia if it reaches near its borders. One of the main reasons for her Afghanistan fiasco was the fear of Islamic radicalism in the wake of Iranian Revolution destabilising her restive Muslim population. They know how ruthless and committed Islamist jihadists in Chechnya and the Caucasus are. Despite all the counter terrorism measures, there have been more than 80 attacks by suicide bombers in Russia, killing or wounding around 5000 people. For Putin, the civil war in Syria is a breeding and training ground for Chechen fighters who will eventually come back to fight against the Russian forces.
Keeping in view Russia’s deep support for the Syrian regime, it is extremely unlikely that Putin withdraw his support for Assad without getting ironclad guarantees for protection of Russia’s strategic, economic and military interests in Syria