What Are the Real Reasons Why Russia Backs Assad?

Article Summary
The arguments that Russia is bolstering to Assad to keep its naval base at Tartus and maintain arms sales to Syria are weak, writes Mehmet Ali Birand. Russia’s continued clinging to Assad is more about maintaining a symbolic grip in the region than strategic or economic considerations.

Intransigence has come to dominate the discussion of toppling the Assad regime. The reasons behind this are important and of vital interest to Turkey.

By our thinking, Russia has two reasons for supporting the Syrian leader:

The first is to preserve the naval base at Tartus which gives Russia access to the Mediterranean. The second is to continue the arms sales to their old ally, giving them a continued say in Middle Eastern affairs.

Recently, much has been said regarding this line of thinking. The latest was in an important article by Ruslan Pukhov, the Director of the Strategy and Technology Analysis Center in Moscow. He said that the reasons cited above are no longer important, and that Putin’s real concern is radical Islam.

Therefore, to our experts:

The naval base at Tartus is not as vital as we think. The base, manned by 50 navy servicemen in a couple of barracks, has no strategic value apart from being a place for Russia to plant its flag on the Mediterranean.

As for the weapons sales to Syria, they only account for 5% of Russia’s total sales. Moreover, Russia has not been selling advanced technology or high-powered weapons for a long time. Furthermore, they just announced that they will not be signing any new weapons contracts.

However, keeping the Syrian regime intact has other significant benefits for Russia. If the West deposes of Bashar al-Assad, as they did with Gadhafi in Libya, it will mean the fall of Russia’s last ally in the Middle East. Perhaps that, symbolically speaking, will also mean the complete erosion of Russia’s superpower status. Moscow does not want this and is struggling to keep Assad out of the West’s reach.

Putin is seriously irritated by the West’s footloose and unchallenged moves in the Middle East. He feels the changes brought about by the Arab Spring and the replacement of secular regimes by Islamists are contrary to Russian interests. For Moscow, an “authoritarian secular regime” is the best defense against Islamists and in that context, Assad is not that bad of a dictator. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s support to the Syrian opposition is perceived by the Russians as pressure from Islamists.

Russia is also furious with the US-led Western effort to topple regimes they don’t like by exploiting UN decisions. For Russia, Libya is one such example.

To sum up Russia’s perspective, it is not about to let go of this affair easily. If Assad can calm the internal opposition and end the bloodshed, then there is no problem [for Russia]. But if the events continue at the current pace, Moscow will have to give up on Assad in the end.

Barzani’s Message Could Change the Balance

Assad has been able to maintain his power this long due to external support from Russia, China and Iran, and internal support from the Christians and important segments within the Kurdish community. These are minority groups who fear an Islamist take over after Assad and the end of the country’s secular system. Kurds play an important role in this balance. While some of them support Assad, others oppose him. However, this split benefits Assad.

This is why [president of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud] Barzani’s latest remarks are truly important. Barzani is trying to develop a common strategy by stressing how the balance of power would shift if Syrian Kurds unite and act harmoniously. We can’t predict if he will succeed, as it is not all that easy to reconcile the different perspectives among the Kurds.

The Kurds, although largely ignored by Assad, fear the prospect of living under an Islamist regime in the future. That is why they too, like the Russians, see Assad as a dictator that they can tolerate. But the tension is growing.

In the context of the Russian-US-Iran struggle, the Kurds may have to make a decision soon. Barzani wants to unite the Kurds under his leadership, and thus strengthen his position before it becomes too late. Can he do it? If Barzani wins and the Kurds unite in opposition against Assad, the balance of power will shift radically.

Found in: turkish-syrian relations, syria conflict, syria kurds, syria crisis, russia’s syria policy, islamists, barzani

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