Although most of the Arab countries, the West and Turkey are clearly unhappy about it, the recent improvement in Russian-Syrian relations does not appear to presage a firm alliance between Moscow and Damascus, but rather something much less. Indeed, as the events of the past two years — since the breakout of the Syrian revolution — have demonstrated, there is only so much that Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to do to salvage the embattled Syrian regime.
In the post-Soviet era, Syria’s isolation from America and the West did not benefit Moscow much. While the Soviet Union was willing to transfer large quantities of weapons to Damascus in exchange for just the promise of repayment, post-Soviet Russia has not been willing to do so. Nor was a Syria that did not feel unduly threatened willing to pay for any weapons it wanted from Russia.
However, the American-led intervention in Iraq and combined European and American pressure on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and over the Hariri assassination have heightened Damascus’s sense of insecurity, thus increasing its incentive to turn to Moscow. The eruption of the Syrian revolution a couple of years ago, accompanied by serious external pressure to remove the Syrian regime has further increased Bashar Al Assad’s reliance on Russia.
This is exactly the position that Putin wants Syria to be in. While Russia may not be willing or able to defend the Syrian regime, the combination of Syria’s heightened sense of insecurity and its isolation from the West is what has allowed notable Russian influence in Damascus. Moscow knows all too well that the moment Al Assad gets out of his internal troubles — a very remote probability — and improve his position vis-a-vis his opponents, Russia’s position in Syria would be much weaker.
Russian firms would have to compete with other international rivals for Syria’s business — something which they do not want to have to do. On the other hand, if a hostile Sunni regime came to power in Damascus, Russia could well lose the contracts, investments and other benefits — including continued Russian naval access to Tartus — it now has or hopes to gain from the current regime should it survive.
It must also be mentioned that the Al Assad regime’s position regarding Georgia and Chechnya is highly valued by Moscow. A few days following the breakout of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, Al Assad visited Moscow. The Russians were absolutely pleased by his strong statement in support of the Russian position regarding the dispute over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “We understand the Russian stance and the Russian military response as a result of the provocations which took place”, he told then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev during a summit in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort. He also rejected “the double-standard criteria and attempts to distort the facts to portray Russia as an aggressor country”.
On Chechnya, the Russians were also pleased when Chechnya’s Moscow-backed president Alu Alkhanov was received both by Al Assad and his prime minister in Damascus in September 2005. Syria was the only Arab country to receive and recognise Alkhanov as the legitimate president of Chechnya. Neither a democratic nor a Sunni regime in Damascus would be so sympathetic towards Moscow on this.
Indeed, a Sunni regime in Syria might actively support the Chechen rebels. Both the Syrian regime and the Russian government claim that jihadists from Chechnya, Dagestan and other Muslim-dominated Russian provinces are fighting in Syria against the regime of Al Assad.
The current situation in Syria, then, is best suited for Putin to advance Russia’s interests be they economic or political. Nor does this seem likely to change in the immediate future. Moscow surely does not have to worry about its position in Syria being marginalised as a result of a Syrian-American or even European rapprochement occurring anytime soon. Nor does it seem likely that Al Assad will willingly depart the scene.
Moscow also understands that while both the United States and Israel have little love for Al Assad, their fear that he will be overthrown and replaced by a “worse” regime gives them both real interest in Moscow helping to prop him up. For if Al Assad’s regime begins to falter, there is little that Russia — or any other country — may be able to do to prevent it from falling. Furthermore, if a Sunni regime does replace Al Assad’s, that will be America’s, Israel’s and Russia’s worst nightmare.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.