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Why Russia is backing Syria

Syrians demonstrating against Arab League's decision to impose sanctions on the country. Photo: KeystoneUSA-Zuma/Rex Features

Russia isn't just protecting its business interests – it fears Syrian civil war could have knock-on effects in Dagestan and beyond

David Hearst : The Guardian/UK / 02 Dec 2011

While an international noose is tightening around the neck of Bashar-al Assad's regime in Syria, with Turkey this week doing most of the pulling, one country, other than Iran, is intent on bucking the trend – Russia.

A day after the UN human rights council said that Syrian forces were committing crimes against humanity, and Turkey was considering imposing a buffer zone along its border to protect Syrians, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said further attempts should be made to engage with Damascus.

Lavrov opposed the idea of an arms embargo, saying it was unfair to expect the Syrian government not respond to unrest. He thought that for the most part armed opposition groups were provoking the Syrian authorities. These were not empty words.

On Monday the state-run English-language channel, Russia Today, reported that Moscow would be sending the aircraft-carrying missile cruiser, Admiral Kuznetsov, and two escort ships on a two-month tour of the Mediterranean and would be dropping in on the Syrian port of Tartus. Six hundred Russian technicians are currently working there to renovate it as a base for Russian ships. Russia Today said the deployment had been long planned, but no one lost sight of the fact that the USS George HW Bush had just appeared off the coast of Syria. On Thursday, a consignment of Russian Yankhont anti-ship cruise missiles arrived in Syria.

Why is Russia engaging so heavily with Syria, where it did not with Libya or Iran? After all, the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev banned the sale of R-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran.

The first answer is money. Apart from active arms contracts worth $4bn, the Moscow Times reported recently that Russia's investment in Syrian infrastructure, energy and tourism amounts to $19.4bn in 2009. A Russian company, Stroitransgaz, is building a natural gas processing plant 200km east of Homs and is providing the technical support for the Arab gas pipeline. The Tatarstan-based Tatneft began pumping Syrian oil last year and in January vowed to spend $12.8m drilling wells near the Iraqi border.

But that is by no means all of the story. The shadow of Libya weighs heavily on Russia's policy with Syria. Throughout the Nato intervention, Lavrov said Russia would not recognise the rebels (although that is what they ended up doing), that there was no UN mandate for a ground forces operation, that the Nato intervention caused more casualties than would otherwise have occurred. Back in August Lavrov said: "Russia will do everything it can to prevent a Libyan scenario happening in Syria."

Even though such a scenario has for now been ruled out by Nato, Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, former chief of naval staff, said Moscow was sending a message to the US and Europe. "Having any military force other than Nato's is very useful for the region because it will prevent the outbreak of armed conflict," he said.

This is not as daft as it first seems, although Russia's naval deployment is no match for Nato, and indeed will be eagerly awaited by them. Naval watchers will be agog to know whether Russia can keep three large ships on the seas without one of them breaking down.

Russia's fears about a civil war developing in Syria are geostrategic and may not be too dissimilar to some of the more cautious western foreign policy analysts, war-gaming the effects it would have on the region. Russian middle eastern experts compare Syria to Russia's own province of Dagestan in the North Caucasus.

Unlike its neighbouring Chechnya, Dagestan is patchwork of competing tribes, religions, ethnicities and loyalties, more than 150 of them. If a breakaway Muslim insurgency took hold there, Dagestan would explode like a grenade, sending hot shards of metal and people across southern Russia.

Russian fears of a Lebanese-style civil war breaking out in Syria, with the country fissuring on sectarian lines, may not be as far fetched in three months' time as they currently seem. Keeping Syria together while getting rid of a vile dictatorship may conversely be a harder task than western leaders pressing for more sanctions realise. Turkey for one is talking big, but acting on the ground more cautiously.


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