Russia would lose a source of revenue and a Middle East power base if Syrian President Bashar Assad falls — two reasons why Moscow has armed the regime and blocked votes to let the United Nations punish Damascus.
The 50-year alliance between the two countries emerged in the spotlight last week as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped her normally cordial tone toward Moscow and berated it for continuing to arm a regime that human rights groups say is killing protesters and innocent civilians.
Russia views Syria as its stage from which to influence military, political and energy policies in the Middle East, including Israeli negotiations with its Arab neighbors and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Moscow operates its only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea at the Syrian city of Tartus and generates hard cash by selling to Damascus weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles and attack helicopters.
Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet — with the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations — designed to mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In that role, Moscow has used Syria as a stage to meet with various Arab leaders, including Khaled Meshaal of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
Moscow also supports Syria as a way to influence Iran, whose energy policies can affect the prices Russia reaps for its own natural gas and oil reserves. Iran also uses Damascus, primarily as a channel to provide cash and weapons to Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group in Lebanon that seeks to destroy Israel.
If Mr. Assad goes and a pro-Western government takes over, the theocracy in Iran could fall next, leaving Russia in its quest to become a world power without a true partner in a strategically important region.
A long history
“It dates back to the 1960s, so it is one of the longest-lasting bilateral relationships in the region,” said Robert Springborg, a professor on Middle East politics and economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
“Its present importance is not only that it provides Russia a naval base on the [Mediterranean] and leverage over Syria, hence over its relations with Lebanon and Israel, but even more importantly Syrian support for Iran is vital to Russia,” Mr. Springborg said.
“Iran is the linchpin in Central Asian-Middle Eastern oil and gas transit, so if it were to become pro-Western once again, it would squeeze Russian domination of gas markets in Europe,” he said.
Russia and China blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution strongly condemning Mr. Assad and urging countries to stop supplying arms. The Pentagon confirmed last week that the regime is using Russian Mi-17 helicopter gunships to attack protesters and civilians.
“Russia has continued to provide weaponry to the al-Assad government as violence intensifies,” a Congressional Research Service report said this year.
There are no firm reports that Russian military advisers are helping Mr. Assad put down rebels.
But Moscow maintains a robust embassy in Damascus staffed with intelligence officers who can relay information about anti-Assad forces. Warships visit the base at Tartus, and thousands of Russians are working in Syria, some as contractors to maintain Russian-made weaponry.
“Russia has a long-standing relationship there,” said former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton. “They’ve got important military facilities. They’ve got a long relationship in selling weapons to Syria, not just these helicopter gunships, but all kinds of weapons systems going back decades.
A ‘strategic context’
“For some time, especially after Libya, the Russians have been concerned about the West overthrowing regimes that are friendly to Moscow,” Mr. Bolton said. “Under what they would say is the guise of humanitarian assistance, the Russians see one regime after another being toppled.
“For the Russians, that adds a kind of strategic context to the importance of the bilateral relationship they have with Syria.”
Mr. Bolton said that if the Assad regime falls, and with it the Ba’ath Party structure, the Russians would work to get a favorable government in power so it would not lose the naval base and the diplomatic stage.
“A pro-Western regime from the Russian point of view is a non-starter,” he said.
Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Russian President Vladimir Putin “likes his allies and doesn’t have many.”
“He likes to be a thorn in our side,” he said, and “is still mad” about NATO intervention that brought down Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
“What I can tell you is that we have been in consultations with our Russian partners for some time now about the way forward in Syria and about soliciting their support for the kinds of international and economic pressure that we believe needs to continue to be applied against the Assad regime,” Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters last week.
Asked whether Russian arms supplies are enabling Syria’s crackdown, Capt. Kirby said: “We certainly understand that many of the Syrians’ systems and programs are Russian-made and that they, as a nation-state, would seek to resupply and refurbish those systems, those programs. But I’m not going to, you know, get into condemning the arms sales between two countries here from the podium.”