Russia is urging the Syrian government to allow United Nations chemical weapon experts access to the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Ghouta is where an alleged chemical attack on Syrian civilians took place on Wednesday, which the Syrian opposition blames the Assad government for. The Syrian regime initially denied the claims, but has not commented on the issue any further or responded to the suggestion that the UN should be given access to Ghouta. The attack on Wednesday claimed 1,000 lives according to opposition sources, and the images that came out of Ghouta have caused an international outcry, leading Russia to back calls to allow UN inspectors to examine the site.
But if you think that this signifies a change in the Russian position on Syria, think again. Russia does not believe the Syrian regime was behind the attack. The Russian foreign ministry (RFM) is already claiming that they have seen evidence that materials implicating Bashar Al-Assad in the chemical attack were prepared prior to the alleged attack. An RFM spokesperson, Alexsandr Lukashevich, said in a statement, “We’re getting more new evidence that this criminal act was of a provocative nature. In particular, there are reports circulating on the internet, in particular that the materials of the incident and accusations against government troops had been posted for several hours before the so-called attack. Thus, it was a pre-planned action."
He went on to describe the accusations against the Syrian government as “another anti-Syrian propaganda wave.” He also tried to implicate the Syrian opposition in the attack. In other words, Russia has not changed its position towards the Syrian regime and the alliance between the two is as strong as it ever been. After all, why would Russia give up the Assad regime? Russia still maintains a naval base of the Syrian coastal city Tartus, despite reports that they planned to evacuate the base. The base allows them to counter the U.S. naval fleet in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Robert Fisk also points out that when you look at a map of Syria from a Russian perspective, the country is geographically close to Chechnya — a part of Russia which is facing its own Muslim rebellion. Instability in Syria could lead to instability in Chechnya. In fact, it is widely believed that Chechens are fighting for the opposition in Syria.
Syria and Russia have had a long and complicated relationship. There was a time when the Syrian regime would give refuge to Chechen exiles, as they did for Bosnian refugees. They would also try and court Western governments and make hints that they were prepared to switch sides. But since the uprising of 2011, those days are gone and the Russian government has not only proved to be an enduring ally of Assad, they have actually grown closer. Assad is a reliable ally of Russia, and despite even though Russia is telling Syria to let UN weapons inspectors access Ghouta, we shouldn't expect that to change anytime soon.