By Chris Solomon for Global Risk Insights
A relic of the Cold War, Syria’s longstanding relationship with Russia bolsters the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Approximately 30,000 Russian citizens live in Syria, mostly through marriages forged with Syrian government elites during the Soviet Union era and again during the economic turbulence after its collapse.
Last October, Russian government officials met with a Syrian delegation in Sochi on how to expand bilateral economic ties. Syrian Minister of Finance Ismail Ismail reportedly requested $1 billion from Russia and $3 billion from Iran to bolster the state credit line. This money will primarily be used to support the army and to pay compensation to the families of government soldiers killed in action. Syria is also seeking fuel and wheat supplies from Russia.
Syria is also being considered as a candidate to join the Eurasian Economic Commission. The decision on whether to set up a ‘green corridor’ with Syria will be tackled in late December. The regime, putting on a brave face during this time of economic stagnation, has touted the opening of shopping malls and a hotel in Latakia, emphasizing a realm of normalcy.
Russia’s oil giant, Soyuzneftegaz, locked down a $90 billion contract in December 2013 to search for oil reserves in Syria’s coastal waters. The Russian naval facility in Tartus is also supposedly about to undergo an expansion. The destruction of oil facilities in eastern Syria has the merchant class in Damascus bracing for fuel (as well as basic goods) price rises this winter. The regime forces recently recaptured the Sha’er gas field from Islamic State (IS).
Military support to the regime also continues to flow in. MiG-29s, Yak-130S, APCs and other armaments earned Russian defense firms an estimated $4 billion in 2013. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem also confirmed they expected to receive S-300 surface to air missile (SAM) and additional high grade weapons from Russia soon.
The Syrian government, for now, is keeping its air defense systems turned off while US aircraft carry out raids against IS. There are discussions in the Russian media that Syria has betrayed them by opening their airspace to the United States. Some Syrian government loyalists also feel it is a violation of state sovereignty that smacks of shame. However, both Putin and Assad will quietly allow the US to do the heavy lifting against IS for them to focus on the other rebel factions.
Ties between Russia and Syria, then, are only growing stronger. But why does Russia want this alliance?
To President Vladimir Putin, the Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Syria represents a direct link to Russia’s restive Caucasus region. Many Chechens are fighting in Syria, and Putin is afraid that they will return battle-hardened and ready to launch a jihad against the Russian state. A prime example is Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Georgian who fought in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and who is now one of the Islamic State’s most skilled commanders within Syria. IS has already released a video message directly to Putin warning him that they are coming to liberate Chechnya.
For Russia, unwavering support of its longstanding ally also signals a message to countries such as Egypt, who feel betrayed by the United States in the wake of the Arab Spring. Algeria purchased $7.5 billion in Russian fighter jets, S-300 SAM systems, and T-90 tanks. Egypt and Iraq, which have paid $10 billion to secure the same hardware, will be essential to Russia’s weapons clients in the region.
Russia’s naval base in Syria’s Tartus is also crucial, as Russia uses the base for refuelling and maintenance whenever Russian ships enter the Mediterranean. Without Tartus, Russian ships would need to use the Bosphorus to regain access to the Black Sea, and thus pass through the waters of NATO member Turkey.
It is clear then that in the short-term, this alliance makes sense. But will it benefit Russia in the long-term?
Local cease-fire agreements with the rebel factions could eventually take hold. On the other hand, if the establishment of safe zones in northern Syria along with training vetted rebels occurs, Russia may be forced to respond with increased military support to save the regime. Russians working for contractors such as Hong Kong’s Slavonic Corps have turned up fighting for the government in Syria.
If Assad indeed holds on, the government will need to find ways to reunite the country in the immediate aftermath. Keeping Assad in power will be counterproductive to the new social order at work. The Syrian Alawite community, which has suffered greatly, is finally beginning to speak out against the government. Assad may survive the war, but not the peace.
Meanwhile in Washington, doubts abound about expanding the operation against IS to include the Assad regime. Russia does not believe that Assad is in danger and will continue to lend its support. However, the years following the end of the Syrian civil war will surely yield political turbulence. That, along with growing international isolationism, indicates that Russia’s gamble with Syria may not pay off.