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Russia clings to a crucial power base in Syria uprising

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Protesters chant slogans against the Syrian regime and Russia’s support of President Bashar Assad as they hold a burned banner depicting Mr. Assad (right) and his brother, Maher Assad (left), in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, on Sunday, June 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

ANALYSIS:

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.

At 400,000 troops, Syria maintains one of the region’s largest military forces, armed primarily by the now-defunct Soviet Union in decades gone by and by Russia today.

“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.

“Iran has a lot at stake itself in keeping Assad in power, and Russia has a lot at stake in supporting Iran. So when you put it all together, it’s very important.”

A ‘strategic context’

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