Russia will not let go of al-Assad easily
Now it has become a showdown over toppling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The reasons for this are extremely important and concern Turkey. I think there are two reasons why Russia is supporting the Syrian leader.
First, to protect its base at Syria’s Tartus port, which provides it with access to the Mediterranean. The other is to continue selling arms to Syria, and therefore to be able to have a say in the Middle East. Recently, several statements were issued one after the other, and the latest of these came in an exceptionally important article published by Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. It stated the reasons I listed above were not important anymore, and that it was radical Islam that actually bothered Putin. Pukhov also mentioned other crucial aspects of the situation for Russia.
Attention to our experts: Before anything else comes the fact that the base at Tartus is not at all as important as it was assumed to be. There are about 50 personnel there and a few barracks. The base does not have any strategic advantages other than flying the Russian flag.
The arms sales, on the other hand, constituted 5 percent of Russia’s total sales in 2011. Moreover, the Russians have not been selling advanced technology and weapons with high firepower to Damascus for a long time. They have also declared that they will not be signing any new contracts.
For Russia, preventing the toppling of the Syrian regime has significance from completely different angles: The toppling of al-Assad by the West, just like that of Gadhafi in Libya, means that the last Russian ally in the Middle East is disappearing, and even though it is in a symbolic sense, it also means that Russia’s superpower status has completely melted down to nothing. Moscow does not want this and is struggling not to leave al-Assad to the West.
Putin is especially annoyed that the West can act so easily in the Middle East, and by the Arab Spring turning the region upside down. The secular regimes are being toppled, and in their place the Islamists are dominating. These are regarded as developments against Russia. For Moscow, the authoritarian secular regimes are an important protective factor against the Islamists, and within this context, al-Assad is not such a bad dictator. The support Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are providing to the Syrian opposition is regarded as Islamist pressure.
Russia is also furious that the “Westerners,” primarily the United States, can topple those administrations they wish to at the cost of distorting United Nations resolutions. Libya is taken as an example.
To sum up, Russia will not let go of this matter very easily. If al-Assad can calm down the domestic opposition and stop the bloodshed, then there’s no problem, but if incidents continue at today’s pace, Moscow will sooner or later have to let go of al-Assad.
Barzani’s message might change the equilibrium
If the external reason that al-Assad has been able to resist for so long is the Russia-China-Iran trio, the domestic reason is the support he enjoys from Christians and an important segmant of the Kurdish population. Their fear is that Islamists will take the place of al-Assad and the secular system of the country will disappear. The Kurds are playing an important role in this equilibrium. While some of them support al-Assad, others oppose him, and this division is to al-Assad’s advantage.
The other day [Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud] Barzani pointed out how the equilibrium would change if Kurds were to unite and act together. Barzani is trying to form a common strategy. Whether or not he can succeed, we do not know, because it is not an easy task to eliminate the differences of opinion among the Kurds.