Russia’s Support for Syria: What’s behind it?

Russia’s Support for Syria: What’s behind it?

Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Russia has supported Assad’s regime and stood in the way of a U.N. resolution against Syria. In this way, Russia has become Syria’s main protector. That’s why it has been intensely discussed why Russia stands firmly behind Syria. In order to explain this policy we need to analyze relations between two countries whose roots date back to the Soviet days.

The Middle East has always been a key geographical and political area for Moscow. As we know, after the collapse of the USSR, Moscow lost its ties in the Middle East due to its interior destabilization. However, the recent rash of economic and political growth allowed Moscow to try to reestablish its political ties with former allies like Iran and Syria. Moscow’s interest in this region has several reasons. Strategic access to the Mediterranean Sea, breaking pro-Western encirclements in the Caucasus and Middle East, securing its southern borders and hindering the expansion of radical Islam in its territory are the well-known reasons, but the most important one is economic relations with this region, particularly with Syria. Syria, compared to other Arab countries, is an “independent” country and has nearly always been a strategic ally of Moscow. Both sides have benefited from these relations because Syria was able to break out, in this way, of international isolation.

Moscow’s interests in Syria have increased – especially after the growing influence of the U.S. and Europe in the MENA Region, particularly after the Iraq war – a region with which Russia had for a long time maintained strong trade relations. Due to this development, the NATO expansion up to the year 1999 into Moscow’s neighborhood and isolation of Syria by the U.S. and Europe’s policy towards the Middle East has acquired new relevance that has rapidly accelerated trade and political relations between Syria and Russia. This became more evident with Russia’s project, Stroytransgaz, in Syria’s Homs at the end of 2009. For instance, Gazprom announced expanding its presence in Syria with additional oil exploration. Bilateral trade relations increased promptly up to 2005 after Putin’s rise in power, reaching nearly 2 billion dollars in 2008 and 1.136 billion in 2009 as a result of the global financial and economic crisis. Moreover, Russia wrote off 73 percent of Syria’s 13.4 billion-dollar debt to the Russian Federation. The minister of energy, Sergei Shmatko, even promised the possibility of nuclear energy cooperation.

Predominantly, the amount of the Russian arms exports to Syria plays a crucial role in these relations. Syria buys 10 percent of Russia’s total arms exports, making it the third-largest purchaser of Russian arms. Some 90 percent of Syria’s armament comes from Russia, and recently they signed several contracts that should provide Syria with modern combat aircraft, anti-aircraft missiles, and tanks. The maintenance of this relationship is important especially for Russia because for Russia it is difficult to sell weapons abroad as their weapons are considered lower quality and less reliable than those made in Western countries. Moreover, Syria is – for Moscow – geopolitically a strategic country, as Russia’s only naval facility outside of its territory is in the Syrian port of Tartus. This has significantly boosted Russia’s operational capability in the Middle East.
From a strategic perspective, Syria’s role for Russia has been compared to that which Israel plays for the U.S. Regarded in that light, Russia’s current foreign policy toward Syria makes total sense.

*Dr. Kenan Engin, University of Applied Sciences, Mainz, Germany; Yulia Demyanenko, Ph.D, Tomsk Polytechnic University, Russia.