Russia up in the Air over Syria

On May 15, 2013 a UN General Assembly Resolution, cosponsored by Arab countries, strongly condemning the ongoing violence and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria and calling for the end of hostilities was adopted by a vote of 107 for, 12 against, and 59 abstentions. It was gratifying that a majority approved this nonbinding resolution, a text that was balanced and objective, but also disappointing that 71 countries did not do so. Among the countries voting "no" was Russia, whose deputy UN ambassador called the Resolution "very harmful and destructive." Using language that Winston Churchill once described as a "terminological inexactitude" he argued that recognition of the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution, instead of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as the legitimate representatives of the Syrians would undermine the "sovereignty of Syria."

Russian policy regarding the conflict in Syria is a "puzzlement." In October 2012 Russia vetoed a resolution critical of Assad's use of force. And on January 31, 2013, Russia thwarted an Arab plan calling on Assad to resign in favor of his deputy.

Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, stated on January 31, 2013 that "we are not friends or allies of President Bashar Assad." Russia was acting for the sake of the Syrians and was concerned to stop the suffering in the country. Lavrov did make clear, however, that Russia would only accept the removal of Assad if this were the decision of an agreement between the regime and the rebels.

Again, on June 1, 2013 Russia blocked a resolution in the UN Security Council that was critical of the force used by Syrian troops and the Hezbollah in their siege of the Syrian town of Qusair. Russia has continually opposed international sanctions on the Assad regime and vetoed three Security Council resolutions to that effect.

From an objective point of view, Russia has particular interests in Syria. Its arms sales to Syria have now amounted to over $5 billion, in previous exports and current contracts. Other trade ties, now about $2 billion, relate to Syrian imports of petroleum products, grain, timber, transport vehicles, and electrical equipment from Russia. Russia has its only naval base in the Mediterranean at the Syrian port city of Tartus, a base which since 2008 has become a permanent Russian one. It is the only Russian presence in the area since the fall of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, which led to loss of Russian construction contracts and investments in Libyan oil and gas. For Russia the fall of Gaddafi was particularly disconcerting because it ended the possibility of building the gas pipeline, agreed to in 2011 by Syria, Iran, and Iraq, from Iran to Europe that would be managed by the Russian Gazprom.

During the rule of Hafez al- Assad (1971-2000) relations between the Soviet Union and Syria were close. It was noticeable that in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war Syria was using Russian made weapons against Israel. For some time Russia accounted for over half of the arms deals made by Syria. In the last year a number of Russian cargo ships have carried arms to Syria; one of them, the Chariot, sailed clandestinely to avoid detection. Russia's deputy foreign minister defended the arms sales and also attacked Europe for not renewing the embargo on arms to Syrians, in order to prevent arms going to the rebels. This is a mute point since the European Union lifted the embargo on May 27, 2013.

A considerable number of Russian advisors are present in Syria to help with those arms supplies. Weapons systems include more than 10 fighter jets, MiG-29 M/M2 fighters which is an advanced version of the MiG-29 jets which Syria already possesses. The significance of these planes is that they are not simply defensive weapons for air-to-air combat, but have some capacity to attack ground forces. Importation of advanced S-300 air defense missile batteries, antiaircraft batteries, long-range surface-to-air missiles, tanks, and artillery has made any attack on the country more difficult. It also makes it harder for Israel to respond to the possible use of chemical weapons or the trouble that Syria is stirring up in the Golan, or to deal with the Syrian trucks carrying weapons to Hezb'allah.

Yet, Russia has been cordial to Israel, allows travel to Israel, and is conscious of the million people in Israel who speak Russian. About 200,000 Israelis still have Russian passports and can vote in Russian elections. President Putin in symbolic fashion took officials to the new Jewish museum in Moscow and served them a kosher breakfast.

It is difficult to believe that Russia is deliberately igniting flames of warfare in the Middle East. Its current exports to Israel amount to over $2.5 billion. Moreover, Russia is now eager to deal in and market Israeli liquified natural gas (LNG) from the Israeli offshore fields, Tamar and Dalit, discovered in 2009 which will be become active in 2017, and will produce three million metric tons of LNG a year. A terminal to handle this energy source is under construction in Cyprus.

Then what can explain Russian policy? Now that the Soviet Union is in the dustbin of history, Russian policy is not based on any ideology, nor on any desire to revive the Cold War, though the rivalry with the U.S. still exists. Its pragmatic outlook, stemming from business interests, explains the good relations it now has with Arab and Islamic countries: with Saudi Arabia and with the bilateral trade with Turkey, now at $18 billion, its fourth-largest trading partner. Russia is acutely aware of Islamist extremism, both as a general problem, and having suffered from it in Chechnya and in the North Caucasus. In 2003 it applied to join the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and was admitted in 2005 as an "observer."

Russia may well believe, as do so many others, that the Assad regime cannot last, but it does not want Islamists to come to power, nor for the war in Syria to go on endlessly. Yet, it has invested a great deal of political capital and financial resources in the Assad regime, and supplied it with an astonishing array of sophisticated military equipment. It has allied with Iran and Hezb'allah in support of the regime despite the fact that the regime is opposed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Bahrain, the Gulf States, and Turkey.

The Obama Administration has pursued a cautious approach in the Syrian imbroglio, and has resisted pressure to intervene even after the allegations of the use of chemical weapons by Assad, supposedly a "red line." This suggests a vacuum in policy making rather than prudent action. The Administration obviously recognizes that Russia is likely to block any international resolution calling for the ouster of Assad, and accepts the reality that no alternative options are particularly good. Yet it should do more. It is not impossible for the United States to procure Russian agreement to deal with the humanitarian tragedy in Syria, and perhaps, as a minimum, to get Russia to agree on a no-fly zone, to which it is presently opposed, but which worked well in Libya and resulted in the downfall of the Gaddafi regime.