Conflict & Justice

Why Russia still stands by Syria


A Syrian pro-government supporter holds up a sign as a convoy carrying Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov heads toward the presidential palace in Damascus on Feb. 7, 2012.


Louai Beshara

CAIRO, Egypt — Syria is short on friends these days.

Former allies all around have given up one-by-one on the government of President Bashar al-Assad as his security forces meet a popular uprising with an increasingly harsh crackdown. Turkey, once one of Assad’s most vocal supporters, for instance, is now his most vocal critic. India has also reversed its stance on Syria.

But through it all, in the 11 months since the first protests erupted and the violence began, Russia has stood virtually alone beside its economic partner, emerging as the most ardent supporter of Syria’s embattled regime.

Never was this more apparent than on Tuesday when, despite it all, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Damascus to meet with the Syrian leader.

Lavrov’s visit came a day after the United States closed its embassy and withdrew its diplomatic staff, and two days after Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have censured the Syrian government for the violence, a first step toward possible UN-backed economic sanctions and military intervention.

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“It is clear that efforts for ending the violence should be accompanied by dialogue between political forces,” Lavrov said in a statement to the Russian press after his visit. “Today we received confirmation from the president of Syria that he is prepared to cooperate in this effort.”

Such cooperation seems unlikely. Syrian security forces have been shelling the rebellious city of Homs for days now, killing hundreds of civilians, according to Syrian activists.

So why does Russia continue to keep the faith?

The economic motive

Natural gas and weapons contracts are part of it, as is lingering resentment over the outcome of the military intervention in Libya, which Russia had opposed.

In May 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev was the first Russian head of state to visit Syria, where he cemented political and economic ties between the two countries. Discussions then included Russia’s arms exports to Syria, which have increased dramatically since 2008 as Russia sought to reestablish its sphere of influence in the Middle East.

Russia is now Syria’s largest supplier of arms, contributing 65 percent of Syria’s weapons between 2006 and 2012, according to the Arms Transfers Database, which is compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

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Over the past several years, Russia has delivered about 2,000 anti-tank missiles for modernized T-72 tanks, 200 Igla (SA-18) portable surface-to-air missiles, and 36 Pantsir-S1 mobile air defense systems, according to Oxford Analytica.

Russia has continued its shipments throughout the current conflict, citing contractual obligations. Among expected deliveries are 200 more SA-19s, additional Igla missiles, 2 MiG-31M interceptors, eight $1 billion Buk-M2E missile system batteries, and Chrysanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems.

Russian officials have said the type of equipment is defensive in nature and is not used against the protesters.

“We should send a strong message to all the parties to the conflict,” Medvedev said in September. “Russia’s interest in such a solution lies also in the fact that Syria is a friendly country with which we have numerous economic and political ties.”

On Oct. 4, Russia, along with China, vetoed an earlier resolution drafted by the Security Council that would have opened the door for sanctions and “complete or partial interruption of economic relations.”

Following this week’s veto, Syria’s representative to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, singled out Russia and China for their support.

"We express our gratitude to these countries that protect international security and peace… history will record their honorable stances,” he said.

The political incentive

Russian officials were particularly disheartened by NATO’s military intervention in Libya, something they are seeking to prevent in Syria. According to people familiar with negotiations, Russia’s leadership believes it was misled during the UN negotiations on Libya. While Russia supported efforts to protect Libyan civilians, it did not want any intervention to be used to force regime change.

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Russia abstained from authorizing a no-fly zone in Libya instead of vetoing the resolution, which eventually led to a full-fledged NATO campaign and the toppling of the government of Muammar Gaddafi.

“Russia supported UN Security Council resolution 1970 and abstained on UN Security Council resolution 1973 in the aim of protecting the Libyan population and preventing the conflict from escalating,” Medvedev had said during US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit to Russia last March. “Unfortunately, we see from the developments now unfolding that real military action has begun. This is something that cannot be allowed to happen.”

After Gaddafi’s death, Russian officials had hoped the new Libyan authorities would honor existing energy agreements. It did not and, in the end, Russia lost about $4 billion in contracts, according to Oxford Analytica.

As a result, Russia has been more forceful in its objections to UN resolutions regarding Syria, analysts said.

“Russian leaders will use the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to show that their country is still a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, an analyst at CNA, a non-profit think tank, and an expert on Russia.

The backlash

Russia’s stance, however, might ultimately backfire.

Anti-Russian protests in Syria have been building for months in response to Moscow's continued support for al-Assad. And last month, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the leading opposition group, called on Syrian expatriates to organize sit-ins at Russian embassies around the world.

The SNC, which has called for sanctions and stricter international measures against the Assad government, said that Russian officials have invited Syrians on both sides of the conflict to Moscow to hold talks. But the Council has so far refused.

“Nobody wanted to negotiate with them,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent figure in the SNC, about the Assad government.

In one of its strongest statements to date, the SNC condemned the governments of Russia and China for obstructing the passage of the UN resolution.

“The SNC holds both governments accountable for the escalation of killings and genocide, and considers this irresponsible step a license for the Syrian regime to kill without being held accountable,” the statement read.

The veto also prompted criticism across the Middle East. A small group of protesters stormed the Russian embassy in Libya on Monday, climbing the roof of the embassy’s building in Tripoli, damaging security cameras and lowering the Russian flag.

“If some intend to use force at all cost ... we can hardly prevent that from happening," Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said. "But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience. They won't get any authorization from the UN Security Council.”