The Syrian conflict which began two years ago has taken many dramatic turns in recent months. The chemical attacks that claimed over a thousand deaths in the city of Ghouta, Syria in August 2013 shocked the world by horrific footages. President Obama decided to strike Syria even unilaterally after what was defined by White House as the Syrian regime crossing the ‘redline’, but decided to go ahead with the approval of the US  Congress. Russia, then came forward with a plan to bring Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision and later to dismantle them. Why is Russia supporting Syria and refuting to condemn the Assad regime internationally? Why has Russia adopted an approach opposed to western world in Syria Crisis? Does Russia have any vital national interest attached to Syria for which it is putting her international reputation at stake? Syrian crisis has turned into a battle of interests between the West and Russia where who gains what matters a lot.

 

By supporting Syria against military intervention, Russian leaders are preventing to establish a precedent that would call for international intervention in response to governmental crackdown of domestic protest and violent uprisings. An analytical study of the Syrian crisis will conclude that Russia does not support the Assad regime solely due to its economic interest but the larger political interest.

 

Russia’s economic interests in Syria are quite far-reaching, especially the energy and military relations between the two. The total value of Russia’s military contract with Syria is estimated to be around $4 billion. Russia is, in general, apprehensive that it might lose lucrative defense agreements once older and friendlier regimes are overthrown and new governments are established in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Russian fear is not exacerbated and was proved right when the new Libyan government entered into a long term defense agreement with France, replacing Russia with whom the ousted Gaddafi regime had close relations. Syria till now is heavily dependent on Russia for military hardware which includes fighter aircraft like Yak 130 and MiG-29 and advanced air defense systems like Pantsir-S1 and S-300. Besides this, the Russian gas and oil companies have huge stakes in the Syrian territory. In recent years colossal natural resources like natural gas and oil have been discovered in the Levant basin (Mediterranean Sea). Tatneft and Soyuzneftegaz, two of Russia’s giant oil companies have been conducting their extraction activities in Syria. Russia has also showed interest in developing Syria’s nuclear energy facility. In 2010, the Russian company Rosatom declared its plans to build Syria’s first nuclear energy plant.

 

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia abandoned all of its foreign military bases except those in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

 

Tartus in Syria is the sole surviving foreign military base of Russia. Tartus port is an important naval supply and logistic facility for Russia since the Cold War days, considering its geostrategic location. This facility in future is key to Russia’s operations in the Mediterranean Sea and for the transit of energy. Russia had earlier demonstrated gunboat diplomacy by shifting its aircraft carrier to the Tartus base. The move exhibited an act of solidarity with Assad regime and signaled to the US that any kind of military intervention would lead Russia directly into a war for the defense of Syria.    

 

Russia’s interest in Syria also goes much beyond arms supply, naval basing and oil, which has to be studied from the Russian perspective. Besides China and Iran, Russia is the only major player that supports the Assad regime. Russia holds the view that the rebels in Syria, who are Sunnis, can destabilize its Caucasus region which too has large Sunni Muslim population by supporting insurgents groups here. Syria under Assad is dominated by the Alawites (although they form only 12% of the total population), an offshoot of Shiite community, which could easily check the rise of Sunni insurgents in the Caucasus region of Russia. Caucasus region of Russia since long has been facing Chechen secessionist movement. If the Syrian rebels succeed in overthrowing Assad regime, the new Sunni dominated regime in Syria could aid Chechen insurgents and disrupt peace in Russia. This could be the primary fear in the mind of President Putin.

 

Russia does not accept any notion of foreign intervention for regime change except that authorized by United Nations. However, Russia is not always opposed to Western led intervention. It has supported US led UN operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and later in Libya in 2011(UNSC Resolution 1973). Russia and China abstained from voting in the resolution that demanded the formation of no-fly zone over Libya. Russia later criticized the NATO intervention which ended up conducting a regime change instead of its restricted mandate of imposing the no fly zone. With an increasing distrust towards NATO, Russia would certainly not like to repeat a similar mistake in Syria’s case. Till now Russia has vetoed three resolutions in the UN Security Council regarding intervention in Syria and has blocked any sanctions from being imposed. Having lost Libya’s lucrative arms market, Russia would definitely not like to lose that of Syria.  

 

From an alternative perspective, it can be argued that Russia’s interest in challenging the United States on Syria could be related to Russia’s ambition to forge a Eurasian Union, an economic and security integration of Russia with the Caucasus, Central Asian and East European countries in opposition to European Union and NATO. By confronting United States, Russia has been creating a delusion of a superpower without being one; the heat of which is being felt by countries proximate to the former Soviet Union. So far, besides Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus are the only members of the Eurasian Union while many countries like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia have been considering joining the Union since 2011. However in 2012, the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton stated that United States will oppose any attempt by Russia to reintegrate the former Soviet countries. She further stated that Washington will make every effort to prevent or slow down any ‘Re-Sovietization’ of the region. Putin is playing a serious gamble by shielding Syria, because if United States decides to go ahead and strike Syria, Russia would lose its creditability as a re-emerging super power. In this case Russia’s potential allies would lose confidence in Russia as their guardian against American hegemony.   

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.