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What Are Russia’s Aims in Syria? 



Syria’s geographic location is important for Moscow due to its coastline on the Mediterranean, its borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel, and its close proximity to the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, with Iran to the east and Europe to the northwest. The Soviet Union had been Syria’s main supplier of arms since the mid-1950s. Egypt was the Soviet Union’s gateway to Syria. In October 1955, the late President Gamal Abdul Nasser signed a major deal with Czechoslovakia to supply Egypt with Soviet arms.[1]Around that same time, Syria received its own Soviet arms shipments from Czechoslovakia.During the three and a half years when Egypt and Syria were united, (February 1, 1958-September 28, 1961), Moscow’s access to Syria expanded.[2]

 

In 1971, Hafiz Assad signed an agreement giving the USSR control of a naval facility in Tartous on the Mediterranean Coast.[3]In May 2005, Russia wrote off 73% of the $13.4 billion Syria owed the former USSR in return for continuing with the 1971 naval facility agreement.[4]Arms contracts in January 2012were estimated to be worth $1.5 billion.[5]  

 

On September 30, 2015, Russia came to Assad’s rescue after the serious losses Syria and Hezbollah and Iran had sufferedin areas considered key to the government’s survival.[6]A spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry said Russia’s Air Force sent to Syria over 50 warplanes and helicopters.[7]In addition to weapons and troops, Russia vetoed twelve United Nations Security Council resolutions between October 4, 2011 and April 10, 2018 for Assad.[8]

 

Russia’s protection of the Assad regime is driven by the following factors:

 

1.   Building naval and air force bases.

1.    Testing Russia’s new weapons.

2.    Projecting Russia’s power on the world stage.

3.    Fighting jihadism.

4.    Using Syria as a bargaining chip to remove Western sanctions following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. 

 

Building Naval and Air Force Bases: Reuters reported on January 20, 2017, that Russia and Syria have signed an agreement to expand and modernize the Tartus facility to enable 11 Russian warships to be located there simultaneously.[9]The agreement is valid for 49 yearsandwill accommodate cruisers and possibly aircraft carriers, including nuclear-powered warships.[10]

 

Tartous is strategically important to Russia. It is the only naval facility Moscow has outside the former Soviet Union. It allows the stationing of naval assets in the Mediterranean instead of sailing them from the Black Sea through Turkey’s NATO controlled Bosporus.Russia has been seeking uninterrupted access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean for centuries. The Ottoman Empire, and its successor, Turkey with its NATO allies, have stood in its way for the past seven centuries. 


What does Russia pay for the Tartous privilege? That is a secret. However, in the 2005 debt re-negotiation agreement, Russia forgave Syria almost $10 billion. How many years does this sum cover? To Assad, the answer is irrelevant. He will pay whatever invoice Russia demands, in order to stay in power.In addition to the Tartus naval facility, Russia and Syria signed an agreement in January 2017 for the Russian air force to use the Hmeymim air base near Latakia for 49 years.[11]

 

Testing Russia’s New Weapons: Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister revealed that Russia has tested over 600 new weapons and military equipment items on the battlefields of Syria, “Practically all new items have passed through the Syrian theater of war in order for us to have an opportunity to see what their real characteristics are and how these weapons are behaving.”[12]Using Syria as a testing field for new Russian weapons serves as a marketing demonstration of the destructiveness of those weapons to potential buyers. In 2014, Russia exported weapons worth $15.5 billion. The MoscowTimeswrote that a 1% increase in sales ($150 million) would be equivalent to only a month of spending on bombs in Syria, estimated at $4 million per day ($120 million per month).[13]Further, in Syria, Russian soldiers have been gaining real battlefield operational experience. 

 

Projecting Russia’s Power on the World Stage: Tartus and Hmeymim strengthen Russia's great-power image. Russia’s protection of Assad is a part of an assertive Russian campaign to act on the world stage, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and attempts by Washington, NATO and the European Union to encroach on what Russia sees as its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. President Putin, in his annual State of the Nation address on April 24, 2005, stated, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century.”[14]


Putin’s military interventions in Georgia’s South Ossetia in August 2008, in Crimea in March 2014, and in Syria since September 30, 2015 are chapters in Mr. Putin’s book on how to restore Russia to its former super-power status, lost on December 26, 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

 

Fighting Jihadism: The so-called Islamic State in Syria has become a magnet to jihadists from Chechnya and the Caucasus. Assad’s survival might be seen in Moscow as a useful trap to kill Russia’s own Islamist citizens who might otherwise return to terrorize Russian cities. 

 

Using Syria as a Bargaining Chip to Remove Western Sanctions: In mid-March 2014, Putin annexed Crimea. In an immediate response, the US and the EU imposed sanctions on Russia. Eighteen months later, Putin entered Syria to possibly use it as a bargaining chip to lift the sanctions. 

Moscow is anxious to get the sanctions removed. They have had a heavy toll on Russia’s economy. A Congressional Research Service report dated February 17, 2017 stated:

 

Russia faced a number of economic challenges in 2014 and 2015, including capital flight, rapid depreciation of the ruble, exclusion from international capital markets, inflation, and domestic budgetary pressures. Growth slowed to 0.7% in 2014 before contracting sharply by 3.7% in 2015. The extent to which US and EU sanctions drove the downturn is difficult to disentangle from the impact of a dramatic drop in the price of oil, a major source of export revenue for the Russian government, or economic policy decisions by the Russian government. 

 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated in 2015 that US and EU sanctions in response to the conflict in Ukraine and Russia's countervailing ban on agricultural imports reduced Russian output over the short term by as much as 1.5%.[15]

 

The likelihood of an imminent removal of sanctions on Russia disappeared, when on August 2, 2017, President Trump had to sign legislation that imposes new sanctions on Russia and limits his own authority to reverse or relax them.[16]The bill, passed almost unanimously by the House of Representatives (419-3) and the Senate (98-2), prohibits the White House from lifting sanctions on Russia or even easing their impact without first reporting to Congress on what the US will get in return from Moscow.[17]In reaction, Russia’s prime minister said the sanctions were tantamount to a “full-scale trade war.”[18]

 

With the United States Congress determined to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, annexing Crimea, destabilizing Eastern Ukraine, and protecting the Assad regime, Putin must realize that his gamble in Syria has thus far been a failure. In order to have the sanctions removed, Putin needs to accommodate US interests in Crimea and/or Syria, and/or Ukraine. 

 

Russia’s Vulnerability in Syria: Syrians never developed an affinity towards Russia, its language, culture, or way of life. Despite six decades of government loyalty to Moscow, very few Syrians speak Russian. Instead, Syrians who study a second language speak English, French, or German. Those who wish to migrate from Syria dream of living in New York, London, or Paris, not in Moscow. After sixty years of government alliance with Russia, it would be difficult to find Syrian students who wish to study in Russian universities, save for those who are on government scholarships. Instead, the great majority of young Syrians desire to study at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, or Oxford. Syrian graduates dream of working and building their lives in Western cities, not in Russia. Standing in the way of Russia’s popularity in Syrian society is Russian protection of the hated Assad regime, Russia’s police-state, the USSR’s history of atheism, the limited reach of the Russian language, and Russia’s poverty compared to US/EU affluence. Since the revolution, the Syrian people’s coldness towards Russia has grown into enmity.

 

The US could take advantage of this situation. By weaponizing a new Syrian army, the US could turn the war in Syria into a defeat for Putin, reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s defeat in the war in Afghanistan (December 1979-February 1989).This new army would be recruited from amongst the 12 million Syrians who lost family and friends and were displaced inside Syria and in neighboring refugee camps.[19]These people whose lives have been destroyed represent a ticking bomb primed against Russia and Assad. With the aid of Western advisors, they could provide the necessary soldiers for a war against Assad and Russia, without the need for American forces on the ground in Syria, save for advisers.

 

Tactically, Mr. Putin extended the life of the Assad regime. Strategically, however, Russia’s intervention is unsustainable. Moscow is unable to walk away from Syria because, if it does, Assad will fall. Staying in Syria puts Russia at the mercy of the US, should Washington choose to pressure Russia. 

 

The war in Syria benefited Russia indirectly. It strained relationsbetween two NATO allies, Turkey and the US, over Syria’s Kurds. Three developments may serve as a harbinger of potentially even greater disagreements between Ankara and Washington. The first two events are resented by Turkey. First was the US welcome in 2013,to the unilaterally declared self-governing Kurdish region in Northern Syria(see below: Areas Controlled by the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria).  The second area of contention was the Pentagon’s alliance with Syria’s Kurds and Syrian Democratic Forces, which removed the so-called Islamic State from Northern Syria. The third event is resented by the US: Turkey’s capture of the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in defiance of the US.[20]  





[1]Suez Crisis: Key players,” BBC,(July 21, 2006).

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5195582.stm

[2]After Egypt and Syria were united under the United Arab Republic on February 28, 1958, Soviet naval units became frequent visitors to the port of Latakia.

[3]The Soviet Navy had similar support facilities in Egypt, until closed by the late President Sadat in 1972. 

Ron Synovitz, “Why Is Access To Syria's Port at Tartus So Important To Moscow?,”RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty,(June 19, 2012).

https://www.rferl.org/a/explainer-why-is-access-/24619441.html

[4]Ibid.

[5]Richard Galpin, “Russian Arms Shipments Bolster Syria's Embattled Assad,” BBC, (January 30, 2012).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16797818

[6]Zeina Karam, “Russia’s Pro-Assad Airstrikes Restore Syria Stalemate,” The Times of Israel,(December 17, 2015). 

https://www.timesofisrael.com/russias-pro-assad-airstrikes-restore-syria-stalemate/

[7]Russian Air Force in Syria Deploying over 50 Planes & Chopper-Defense Ministry,” RT, (October 1, 2015),

https://www.rt.com/news/317179-russian-airforce-syria-aircraft/

[8]Russia’s 12 UN Vetoes on Syria,” Arab News, (April 10, 2018).

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1282481/middle-east

[9]Russia, Syria Sign Agreement on Expanding Tartus Naval Base,” Reuters,(January 20, 2017).

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-russia-syria-tartus-idUSKBN1541U8

[10]“Russia to Start Upgrading Tartous Facility in Syria for Hosting Aircraft Carriers,” Sputnik International,(March 3, 2017).

https://sputniknews.com/military/201703101051435468-tartus-russia-base/

[11]Samuel Osborne, “Russia to Stay in Syria for Another Half a Century as Putin Signs Air Base Deal with Assad Regime,” The Independent, (July 27, 2017).

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/russia-syria-50-years-half-century-air-base-deal-putin-assad-regime-president-rebels-isis-a7863031.html

[12]Damien Sharkov, “Russia Is Using Syria to Test Its Next Generation of Weapons,” Newsweek, (AUGUST 24, 2017).

http://www.newsweek.com/russia-using-syria-test-next-generation-its-weapons-654689

[13]Peter Hobson, “Calculating the Cost of Russia's War in Syria,”The Moscow Times,(October 20, 2015).

https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/calculating-the-cost-of-russias-war-in-syria-50382

[14]Andrew Osborne, “Putin: Collapse of the Soviet Union Was 'Catastrophe of the Century',” The Independent,(April 25, 2005).

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/putin-collapse-of-the-soviet-union-was-catastrophe-of-the-century-521064.html

[15]Rebecca M. Nelson, “US Sanctions and Russia’s Economy,” Congressional Research Service,(February 17, 2017).

https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43895.pdf 

[16]Kaitlan Collins, Jeremy Herb, and Daniella Diaz, “Trump Signs Bill Approving New Sanctions against Russia,” CNN,(August 3, 2017).

http://edition.cnn.com/2017/08/02/politics/donald-trump-russia-sanctions-bill/index.html

[17]Ibid.

[18]Julian Borger, “Russia Sanctions: Trump Signs Bill Imposing New Measures,”The Guardian,(August 2, 2017).

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/02/donald-trump-sanctions-russia-signs-bill

[19]UNHCR, Syria Emergency, (accessed, November 6, 2017).  

http://www.unhcr.org/uk/syria-emergency.html

[20]Turkey's Erdogan Says Afrin City Centre Under 'Total' Control in Syria,” The Telegraph, (March 18, 2018).

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/18/turkeys-erdogan-says-afrin-city-centre-total-control-syria/

 



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