A Tale of Two Choices in Syria

In June 2013 a resolution of the UN Security Council expressing "grave concerns" about the military offensive in the town of Qusayr by the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad against rebel forces failed to pass because of the opposition of China and Russia. The response of the United States Administration, delivered by Jen Psaki, the spokesperson of the State Department, was, "We fail to understand Russia's reasoning as it continues to block attempts at the UNSC to address the urgent situation" in Syria. The official Russian reply was that the resolution was not timely because the Syrian army was in the midst of finishing a "counter-terrorist operation."

For the two great powers the Syrian imbroglio is a tale of two choices. President Vladimir Putin has made a clear choice, to support the Assad regime for various reasons. President Obama has made a choice of non-involvement in any major effort to support the opposition to the regime. He did suggest that Bashar al Assad step aside, and said, "cruelty must be confronted for the sake of justice and human dignity." But no confrontation followed. This logically follows from Obama's commitment to end America's military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, his desire to speed up the withdrawal of the 63,000 U.S. forces now in that country, and his interest in a complete withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel from Iraq.

The essential and disturbing reality is that Russia has a definite policy about events in the Middle East while the current U.S. Administration is more indefinite. The State Department spokesperson should be aware that Russian policy can be explained in terms both of recent history and current issues. Some form of cordial relationship between Russia and Syria can be traced back to the early post-World War II years. The relationship was strengthened after the military coup in Syria in February 1954, and even more after the later coup and subsequent seizure of power by Air Force Commander Hafez al Assad in March 1971. In 1972, a peace and security pact was signed between Syria and the Soviet Union which began supplying more arms to its partner.

Unlike Egypt under Anwar Sadat who made peace with Israel and expelled 20,000 Soviet "advisers" in July 1972, Syria never broke links with the Soviet bloc and must be regarded as Russia's most favored client state in the Middle East. In October 1980, Leonid Brezhnev, then head of the Soviet Union, signed a treaty of friendship with Hafez al Assad. In April 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev guaranteed that the Soviet Union would supply Syria with economic and military aid, in spite of differences between the two countries over the Iran-Iraq war, during which Syria had sided with the United States against Saddam Hussein.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin, as President of Russia, meeting with Bashar al Assad in January 2005 in Moscow, announced he would annul three-quarters of the Syrian debt to the Soviet Union. The two declared that the special ties begun between the Soviet Union and Syria would be renewed. The Syrian leader in August 2008, in discussions with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, declared support for the Russian military operation in Georgia. Bashar al Assad must now be seen as the closest Arab ally of Russia. Syria never cut its ties with Russia as Egyptian President Sadat did.

All these arrangements are not so much demonstrations of friendly association but rather evidence of a client-patron relationship based on mutual convenience, and mutual hostility towards the State of Israel. Over the last decade the patron has vetoed or prevented the adoption of resolutions in the UN Security Council critical of Syria on a number of occasions; in October 2011, February 2012, July 2012, and June 2013. At the same time the patron benefits both economically and strategically.

First are the economic relations. Last year Russia exported more than $1.1 billion in goods, including petroleum products, grains, electrical equipment, to Syria and invested more than $20 billion in its infrastructure, tourism, and energy industries. Particularly important is Stroitansgaz, a natural gas construction company, the largest Russian operation in Syria. Total trade between the two countries was $1.9 billion. In addition, Russia has sold Syria about $4 billion in arms, and the supply is increasing with MiG-29 fighter planes, antiaircraft missiles, antitank rockets, submarines, and smaller arms. Though Syria has sometimes been reluctant to pay its debts, the arms sales to Syria amount to about ten percent of Russia's total weapons exports. Russia has benefitted from this not only financially, but also because it has been able to observe how successful the supplied weapons were in operation.

Strategically, Russia , since an agreement in 1971, has benefitted from the naval supply and maintenance base at Tartus, its only base in the Mediterranean for its Black Sea Fleet. Since 2008 it is available as a permanent base for Russia's nuclear-armed warships. Over the last few years the base has been renovated to allow access to larger vessels.

Russia has had a long history of asserting its role as protector of the Orthodox Churches under Ottoman rule. Some of its leaders even called for the occupation of Constantinople to revive Christianity there. In an ironic twist the secular Russia stakes a claim to be the protector of Christians in the Middle East, and is directly concerned about the fate of the one million Christians, over half of whom belong to the Orthodox Church, who constitute about 4.5 percent of the Syrian population. The Russian leaders, both Medvedev and Putin, have congratulated the Patriarch Kirill and thanked him for his role in Russia's spiritual revival. Noticeably, the Patriarch visited Syria in 2012 to renew contact with the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Personal relationships exist since some 30,000 Russians are married to Syrians. More important, and a major factor in explaining the Russian position, is the fear of the increasing Islamic Sunni extremism in the north Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya, most of whose 1.5 million population adhere to Sunni Islam. Putin is aware that 15 percent of Russians are Muslims and that his problem is to maintain internal stability. During the bitter wars with Russia, 1994-96, and 1999-2003, the fighters in Chechnya took on a more Islamic outlook, and the extreme Salafists became more prominent. Putin may well be worried that this group may disrupt the Olympic Winter Games to be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in February 2014.

On Syria, the Russian attitude seems firm. Clearly the Russians regret that they abstained and did not veto the United Nations approved the decision on March 17, 2011 to set up a no fly zone in Libya, which they assumed was intended to protect civilians there, but which it fact led to the overthrow and death of Gaddafi. They are not willing to agree to any similar arrangement in Syria. The U.S. State Department should not fail to understand Russia's policy and reasoning. On the contrary it should be working on counteracting or overcoming that policy.