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MEHMET ALİ BİRAND

mab@hurriyet.com.tr

MEHMET ALİ BİRAND > Russia will not let go of al-Assad easily

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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.

July/12/2012

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michael quinones

7/12/2012 9:26:48 PM

There are reports, such as this 2010 one, that Russia plans to revamp its Tartus base: MOSCOW, August 2 (RIA Novosti) - Russia's naval supply and maintenance site near Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus will be modernized to accommodate heavy warships after 2012, the Russian Navy chief said on Monday. "Tartus will be developed as a naval base. The first stage of development and modernization will be completed in 2012," Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky said, adding it could then serve as a base for guide

Jospeh Joe

7/12/2012 8:57:39 PM

You have missed the main reason for Russia's support: it is the price of oil. Without high priced oil, Russia has no strategic empire. On the other hand, the US and Europe need $30 oil to be able to pay their horrendous debts, and to have their economies survive. In this case, it is a direct conflict of basic interests. The US must topple Iran, to get cheap oil, and reduce the flow of oil-money to those who foment mischief. Toppling Syria may help it topple Iran. Russia can't allow that.

The Lion

7/12/2012 6:22:14 PM

v tiger, how about the oppression of 70 % of the Syrian people by a minority Alawite dictatorship created by French imperialists and backed by armenian terrorists.

Chris Green

7/12/2012 6:08:22 PM

To add to V Tiger's 2nd point, Russia will want a presence close to south Cyprus to ensure she gets her hands on what Putin will perceive of his share of any gas there as security at least, for south Nicosia's huge indebtedness to Moscow, doubtless with huge interest to be paid in kind!

Joshua Bronxman

7/12/2012 3:07:44 PM

Between the article and V Tigers comment I thnk all of the essential points have been covered. Russia has a lot to lose with a good possibility of actually losing it. I wonder what their contingency plans look like.

V Tiger

7/12/2012 1:53:10 PM

Missing points in this article are:1. Oil,gas & pipelines running through Syrian territory.Qatar,S.Arabia together with Turkey want to control the southern gas route to Europe via Turkey combined with the Azeri oil/gas & cut off the Russians' northern route.2.Newly discovered Israeli/Cypriot gas which will eventually run to Europe.
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