Made in Moscow – Russia’s role in Syria’s crisis

Basile Roze - International Reporter 4 March 2013

Syria is bleeding. What started out as a protest movement against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become a bloodbath. According to the latest UN report, 70,000 lives have been taken, millions have been displaced to neighbouring countries, and 4 million Syrians are in dire need of assistance.

Admittedly rebel groups have recently begun to arm themselves in a more efficient way, owing in part to western support, but the government in Damascus is similarly relying on heavy weaponry to crush the rebellion, with Russia playing a key and controversial role in this regard. Russia and China are both among the few avenues of international support available to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “There is little doubt that Russia has been the key arms supplier to Syria”, Dr George Joffe, a member of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, told The Cambridge Student this week. “Indeed, it has been ever since the Cold War when it promised strategic parity with Israel to Syria”.

This special relationship between Moscow and Damascus, however, has mainly geopolitical and commercial roots. While Bashar al-Assad was never a Russian ally, his father had been an ally of the Soviets during the Cold War. Furthermore, the partnership between the two countries has been rekindled in recent years under the Russian leadership of Vladimir Putin, and catalysed by the Russian use of the Syrian Mediterranean port in Tartus and other important military agreements between the two allies.

This dangerous geopolitical liaison has the potential to accelerate humanitarian suffering in Syria. Putin’s administration has refused to stop supporting Assad’s government, and tried instead to implement negotiations, but the rebels insist that Assad step down before they consider partaking in negotiations. Russia claims it is only delivering defensive weapons to the Syrian government, under military contracts signed before the civil war erupted. Russia’s role as a weapon supplier also places it favourably as a potential mediator.

Speaking to the German radio station Deutsche Welle, Heiko Wimmen, an expert on Syria at the German Institute for International Security and Affairs, said: “I don’t believe Russia is in a position to push the Syrian regime to take steps it doesn’t want to. If Russia were to really make a serious effort to find a solution to the conflict, it would lead to a break in ties between Moscow and Damascus”.

But beyond this dangerous liaison, the growing rift between the US and Europe on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, is another source of grave contention. While Russia has systematically prevented the UN from a direct intervention by using its veto in the Security Council until now, the western countries have never quite agreed to push the Syrian opposition to open negotiation with the Assad regime.

However, given the growing number of fatalities, western powers seem to be rethinking their stance on this issue. “It is a profound irony”, said Dr Joffe, “that the long-held Russian position of facilitating negotiations between the regime and the movements which oppose it now seems to have become the preferred option of the United States and its Western allies”.

In his conversation with TCS, Dr Joffe added: “Of course, had Western powers adopted this position originally, rather than trying to browbeat Russia and China into accepting unilateral intervention, several thousand Syrians might still be alive”.

Moscow too may eventually, under growing humanitarian pressure, shift its ideological position away from militarily equipping and supporting the Assad regime in Damascus. Until it does, fighting and bloodshed in Syria remain far from over.

Basile Roze – International Reporter