BEIRUT

Middle East

Russia banks on Assad’s survival as billions in arms deals hang in balance

BEIRUT: The uncompromising use of force by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s authorities in attempts to crush the popular uprising against the state, which has left some 2,600 people dead since March, has earned Damascus widespread international opprobrium.

But the beleaguered Syrian president has been able to count on the active support of one powerful global player – Russia.Russia’s motivation for continuing to support Assad is rooted in the billions of dollars of investments, especially arms deals, and military arrangements with Syria as well as Moscow’s innate aversion to popular protest movements and foreign interventions.

According to diplomats and analysts, the Russian leadership has calculated that Assad could yet prevail against the Syrian opposition movement.

The Syrian opposition remains divided and has yet to gain sufficient momentum to turn the tide in its favor. The army – at least the core military units – along with the intelligence services remains firmly behind the state. And there is little appetite for a Western intervention in Syria similar to the NATO-led support for Libyan rebels against Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.

Ilyas Umakhanov, deputy chairman of the Russian Federation Council and head of a delegation currently in Syria, Monday said he was confident Assad would implement a series of reforms measures announced in previous months, including constitutional changes, a new electoral law and the annulment of the state of emergency.

“I think the country’s leaders have managed to turn the tide” against the uprising, he said.

Since the revolt began mid-March, Russia has blocked action against Damascus in the United Nations Security Council, dispatched delegations and envoys to the Syrian capital and warned repeatedly against the perceived folly of international intervention. Recently, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that some of those taking part in the Syrian street protests had links to “terrorists.” Such comments – which echo those of the Assad regime – are warmly greeted in Damascus.

Assad Sunday welcomed the “balanced and constructive Russian position toward the security and stability of Syria.”

Certainly Moscow is not the only country expressing wariness at sudden change in Syria: the five-nation BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) recently declared they were against a Libya-style intervention in Syria and urged for dialogue between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition.

But Russia’s repeated defense of the regime in Damascus has frustrated the Syrian opposition which is seeking the support of the international community in its bid to oust Assad.

Last week, Syrian protesters vented their irritation at Moscow’s stance by holding protests dubbed a “day of anger” against Russia.

Yet Russia holds a contrary view from the West in its assessment of the series of uprisings that have swept the Middle East and North Africa this year. Even though the influence of the United States in the Arab world has been weakened as a result of the revolutions, the West adopts a generally optimistic stance toward the Arab Spring, viewing it as a welcome shift toward democracy in the region. Russia, however, takes the more hard-nosed and pessimistic view that the outcome will lead to instability and bloodshed.

“If the Syrian government is unable to hold on to power, there is a high probability that radicals and representatives of terrorist organizations will become entrenched,” Ilya Rogachyov, a top official in the Russian Foreign Ministry, said last week.

Russia can be forgiven feeling some unease at the prospect of regime change in Syria. According to a recent article in The Moscow Times, Russian investments in Syria in 2009 were valued at $19.4 billion, mainly in arms deals, infrastructure development, energy and tourism. Russian exports in 2010 totaled $1.1 billion, the newspaper said.

Russian-Syrian ties are perhaps strongest in the field of arms sales. The Soviet Union was Syria’s main supplier of weapons during the Cold War era, leaving Damascus saddled with a $13.4 billion arms debt. Although trade dwindled following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it picked up again from 2005 when Moscow wrote off almost 75 percent of the debt. Russia and Syria have signed arms deals worth some $4 billion since 2006. They include the sale of MiG 29 fighter jets, Yak-130 jet trainers, Pantsir and Buk air defense systems and P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles.

Syria also hopes to receive Iskandar ballistic missiles and S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, the latter of which would pose significant threats to hostile aircraft operating in Syrian skies. Much of the funding for the arms deals reportedly is underwritten by Iran, which signed several defense agreements with Syria from 2005.

Russia also operates a naval supply and maintenance site near the northern Syrian port city of Tartus.

The Soviet-era facility has been in Russian hands since 1971 but fell into disrepair in 1992. However, the port is undergoing a major refurbishment which will grant Russian naval vessels a permanent base in the Mediterranean after 2012.

Presently, Russia’s only other warm water naval facility is at Sevastopol in the nearly landlocked Black Sea. All Russian shipping exiting the Black Sea must sail through the narrow Bosporus channel which lies within Turkish waters.

However, the billions of dollars in investments and the strategic naval facility in Tartous could all be jeopardized if the Assad regime is overthrown or the country descends into violent chaos.

As it is, Moscow, having opposed the NATO-led intervention in Libya, is waiting to see if the new authorities in Tripoli will honor some $10 billion worth of business deals reached with the Gadhafi regime.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 21, 2011, on page 9.
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