“Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so”, professes Putin. After invading Crimea and supporting the separation of Ukraine, the Russian president seems determined to bring the power of the USSR back to Russia, and end the era of the unipolar world. Will his intervention in Syria accomplish that?
Russia’s support of the Syrian regime throughout the past 4 years was mainly diplomatic and political, despite some military assistance by providing equipment and logistical support. Russia has used the UN security council’s Veto right twice along with China to stop actions from being taken against the Syrian regime. However, it seems that the Russian president thinks that this support is not enough anymore. Russia has recently deployed military tanks and cargo planes in Syria, and has publically announced that they will be taking “military action against terrorism” in Syria. “We really want to create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism”, Mr. Putin said.
One must wonder, why does Russia support such a brutal authoritarian regime, which kills its own people? Nonetheless, there are many reasons to such support that one must understand in order to grasp the full picture. Firstly, Syria has always been Russia’s most loyal ally in the Middle East. Russian relations with Syria date back as far as Syria’s independence, because Syria rejected the western dominance in the region and aligned with the socialist allegiance. The USSR’s support for Syria continued and increased after the formation of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 (also known as Central Treaty Organization), which included Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and Great Britain. It aimed to prevent the communist incursion and foster western dominance in the region. During the 5-year period of 1955-1960, the Soviet Union provided close to $200 million in military aid, in exchange for more soviet influence in the region and increased foreign trade.
This support has increased, especially after the fall of many Arab regimes in the region – most importantly, Al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, which was thrown after the 17th of February revolution in 2011. In 2012, Russia abstained from a vote to take military action against Al-Qaddafi. The resolution passed and this abstention led to the collapse of Al-Qaddafi’s regime after military action taken by NATO. However, the western dominance in Libya after the revolution led to Russia being concerned about their interests in the region, especially because in that same year, Russia had lost nearly $4 billion worth of arms contracts with Al-Qaddafi’s regime. Therefore, Russia has objected against any military action against Al-Assad’s regime to preserve their last ally in the region.
The second reason is most probably the Russian Naval military base in the Syrian port, Tartus. Tartus was originally built in 1971 as a part of the debt relief agreement with the new administration of Hafez Al-Assad. The base is claimed to only be used for “repair and replenishment”, and is the only Russian military base outside Russia. Although the Russians claim that their support of the Syrian regime is not affiliated with the existence of the military base in any way, as it is only for “repair and replenishment” and provides “logistic support” solely for the government. Their claim is very questionable considering that some reports suggest that they are currently expanding the base and that Russia has deployed approximately 50 warplanes and some tanks in Syria. The naval base in Tartus also houses around 10 warships.
Furthermore, Russia’s significantly lucrative economic relations with Syria are undeniable. Russia’s exports to Syria were worth $1.1 billion in 2010. Their investments in the country worth close to $19 billion in 2009. Russian firms have always invested in Syria, especially oil extraction and refining companies. In late 2013, a Russian company, Soyuzneftegaz, signed an agreement with the Syrian government to explore offshore oil and gas, which will cost the Russian company around $90 million. Russia’s arms contract with Syria is worth around $4 billion. These facts give the sense that Russia sees Syria as a long term economic investment. However, out of Russia’s $1.86 trillion total output, its investments in Syria seem to be insignificant, forming around 0.013% of their total GDP. Russia’s support for the Al-Assad is not only because of their economic interest or profit, but more from its fear of the increased Western dominance in the Middle East. Therefore, after it has already lost some of them, Russia needs to preserve and support its allies in the region. But the question is, is this the right way to do it?