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Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych

Viktor Fedorovych YanukovychYanukovych

Russia's interests in Syria

Moscow's Syria policy goes beyond the reports in the media. Bashar al-Assad himself and his country are of secondary importance for Russia, as are Syria's strategic position, weapons, or the Russian naval base in Tartus. A background article by Stefan Bernhardt

Hardly anything causes more misunderstanding in international politics and the Western media than the Russian position on the Syrian issue. Despite an increasingly bloody civil war, Russia does not agree to any resolution on Syria. In the media, a wide range of explanations circulates as to why Russia does not support tougher sanctions and a military operation.

The interests of the Kremlin in the case of Syria, however, are fed by a mixture of fear, mistrust and geopolitics. It must be understood that Syria neither is Moscow's ally nor is considered as such. Only once a Russian president has visited Syria, Dmitry Medvedev in 2010. Close relationships and links with Russia are perceptions of the Cold War, when Syria was actually an ally of the Soviet Union, but since the collapse of the USSR, the relationship has cooled considerably. Today, other things are at the center.

Lucrative arms deals

Assad in Russia 2008

The Assad regime is important for Russia as a weapons buyer, and will therefore be protected internationally. The official figures are, however, different. According to the database for international arms deals of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, short SIPRI, an independent, prestigious, research institute, and the Russland-Analysen of the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the arms trade has no great significance. Syria's share in total Russian arms exports appears to be low.

From 2008 to 2011, when Syria bought most weapons from Russia, this corresponded to only 3.23 percent of total Russian arms trade. These were air-defense systems, missiles and aircrafts, most of which have not yet been delivered. Apart from that, the weapons are bought on credit in Russia. Lucrative arms deals look different, thus Syria is quite dispensable.

"Naval base" in Tartus

The Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus is brought up often: it is said, Moscow wants to maintain the port because of its essential strategic value. Here even the word "naval base" is an exaggeration. It is rather a warehouse with supplies for the Russian Navy guarded by the military. There are no more than 150 soldiers stationed there, and the Russian navy hardly uses it because it has few fleet operations in the region.

Moscow has never showed a real vital interest in this garrison. It was restored and repaired only in 2010, but never expanded into a full-fledged naval base and remained as the smallest military outpost of Russia. At best it has a symbolic meaning.

More than just Syria

The nightmare scenario for Moscow is an area-wide civil war in Syria that will not stop at state borders and will reach Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. For the Kremlin it would be like an open fire next to a powder keg. Russia also fears that the civil war might develop into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Syria's ally Iran, Turkey, and possibly others.

The biggest fear is the further radicalization or even militarization of the Middle East, which would advance more extremist forces. From the Russian perspective, this might affect the Caucasus as well as Central Asia and with this Moscow's direct security interests in its most unstable regions. A further radicalization as well as a militarization should be avoided by all means there – a nightmare for the Kremlin after the conflicts that still remain unresolved in the Caucasus today.

Distrust as the driving force

Moscow sees the Syrian opposition as a poor alternative to Assad. The internal discord, the insufficient support among the Syrian population, the lack of control over the armed groups in Syria and its diverse mix ranging from democratic liberal to extremist Islamist forces are unacceptable for Russia. This made Assad a necessary evil, because he maintained stability and predictability until the breakout of the civil war. The fact that the Syrian opposition abroad has not stopped its internal power struggles in the face of the dead of thousands should have rather strengthened the Russian mistrust.

Russia does neither trust NATO nor the EU, which could try a military strike to solve the conflict in their own favor. Moscow is not only worried about its geopolitical influence, but more about the above described consequences for the region and especially for itself. After all, from the Russian perspective, the West has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, the Kremlin believes that the West is unable to prevent the same thing in Syria.

Libya's long shadow

To prevent a possible military intervention on the part of the West, Moscow blocks any resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the regime in Damascus. The reason for this is the Libyan experience. Russia had agreed to the 2011 UN resolution establishing a no-fly zone to protect the civilian population. NATO interpreted the resolution for their purposes, and used them for a war against Gaddafi. Therefore, the Kremlin now blocks any resolution from the outset, because a military intervention in Syria could escalate the situation further.

The Russian state is also skeptical about the developments in North Africa. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya brought Islamist groups to power. A development that could also results in a radicalization and militarization of the region from a Russian point of view. Additionally, in the case of Libya nobody seemed to have been able to secure Gaddafi's weapon deposits effectively. Countless weapons fell into the hands of extremists; a scenario that is not to be repeated in Syria.

Cooperation is possible

The interests of the Kremlin reveal one thing: whoever wants to find a solution together with Russia for the conflict in Syria must understand that it is not about weapons, a "naval base" or influence. Security interests are primary for Moscow. Therefore, cooperation with Russia is only possible with the inclusion of Russia's security interests. The Kremlin appears helpful only if there is a real solution to the military conflict in Syria, which will not escalate the instability in the region.