Any self-respecting super power that has a large country to fuel will want to protect its interests in the oil-rich Middle East while at the same time maintaining credibility in the international community. Given the shifting regimes under Arab Spring, this can be a delicate and perilous balancing act.
Russia has maintained a strong and friendly relationship with Syria and staunchly defended Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian conflict that began nearly two years ago with peaceful protests and has, to date, resulted in the deaths of some 40,000 Syrians. Russia has stubbornly opposed any suggestions that Assad be forced to step down while at the same time maintaining that the Syrian conflict remain in the hands of the Syrians. Given Russia’s interests in Syria, this both-ends-against-the-middle play may prove a prudent move that not only ensures that Russian interests remain intact, no matter who is in power, but one that necessarily makes Russia a key player in peace negotiations.
The Syrian conflict has jeopardized Russia’s significant economic interests in that country. Russian exports to Syria in 2010 totaled $1.1 billion, and in 2009 Russian investments in Syria exceeded $19 billion, mainly in oil and gas infrastructure construction, exploration, processing, and transport. Besides severely limited movement within Syria, and the obvious danger to Russian workers, international sanctions against Syria are hurting Russian interests, not to mention the Iranian sanctions.
Russia has vital military interests in Syria. Aside from pre-conflict lucrative arms contracts that total some $4 billion, Russia maintains its only naval base on the Mediterranean at Tartus. Although the naval base is incapable of servicing Russia’s larger warships, in 2009 Assad agreed to allow Russia to convert the base so that it could accommodate Russian nuclear-armed warships. Since then, Russia began renovating the base and dredging the port to accommodate larger ships. Many see this as Russia’s response to the America’s stance (under President George W. Bush) on the 2008 South Ossetia War and the missile defense shield that is partially on line in North West Poland.
No small wonder, then, that Russia will want to continue doing business in Syria despite who is in power. However, Assad has intensified the conflict considerably by “suggesting” that using chemical weapons on his own people and possibly neighboring countries is an option when he allegedly ordered his Chemical Weapons Corp to “prepare.” Whether reports of Assad using chemicals weapons is a genuine threat or not, that he has a Chemical Weapons Corp at all is worry enough. The international community has sternly warned Assad against chemical weapons use and Russia has not surprisingly followed suit as a likely and wise preparation for a post-Assad Syria where Russia’s business and military interests will be at risk because of its historical support of Assad. During the past few weeks, Russia has taken part in talks in Geneva and Ireland aimed at solutions to the Syrian crisis, although Russia’s representative stressed that Russia was not softening its position on opposing forced removal of Assad. This is a safe play as well as a face-saving measure for Russia given the spate of Syrian government defections, opposition forces fast closing in on Assad, and an international contingency of warships converging on Syria to exercise options.
Nevertheless, Russia is obliged to help Assad, its longtime and loyal ally, and his family gain safe passage to a country of refuge, which may be Iran, both a Syrian friend and a dubious Russian friend. This augurs well for Russia who can come off looking like peacemaker, humanitarian, and a sorely needed intermediary for future Iran-Syria relations — since Russia needs both Syria and Iran for its military and economic interests. Let us hope that the peace and humanitarian angles upend the African proverb that states, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.”