Winds of change continue in the Middle East. Now Syria is in the spotlight. Since there is a consensus on the idea that recent developments in Syria may cause different consequences from other regional countries, international actors are more precautionary. The ’cautious’ stance of Moscow regarding international intervention to Libya replaced to a more distinctive one in the case of Syria. Apparently, for Russia cost of possible regime change in Syria will be more than cancellation of the arms trade agreements. How does Russia evaluates recent developments is another hot topic since Damascus is one of the most important allies of Moscow in the Middle East.
First of all, Russia prefers to evaluate uprisings in the Middle East as domestic issues of the countries. In the case of international operation to Libya, Russia did not veto the UN resolution, choosing to abstain instead. As for Syria, Russia firmly stands against such intervention not only because Moscow is not content with the Libya operation but also Syria means a lot to Russia.
Putin took over from the Yeltsin era the tendency of looking to the Middle East from an economic point of view. Since Putin knew that recovery of the Russian economy is a must in order to restore Russia’s great power status, this trend sustained. Therefore during the early 2000s Russia used mostly economic tools, mainly arms trade agreements in its policy towards Middle East. As a consequence of these agreements Moscow became the number one arms supplier in the Middle East. According to Igor Korotchenko, head of a Moscow-based think-tank on international arms trade, Russian arms sales to Algeria and Syria constitute about one-eighth of Russia’s portfolio of arms orders worldwide, which totals $ 48 billion.
While Russian foreign policy was dominated by economy in Middle East, when it comes to Syria another dimension of Russian foreign policy towards this region fade in: mediation. Relative improvement in Russian economy was followed by Russian great power claims in international arena. Moscow’s great power initiative in the Middle East was formulated as a mediator. Syria is one of the pillars upon which Russia establishes its mediation role. Indeed Moscow tries to be part of any initiative aiming solution between Israel and Syria.
2005 has been a breaking point in terms of Damascus-Moscow relations. During Syrian President Bashar Assad’s state visit to Russia in January 2005, a protocol was signed to write-off % 73 of Syria’s debt ($ 9,8 million). This protocol paved the way to enhanced mutual relations. For Syria, which was isolated in international scene, Russia was a very important partner. As for Russia we can say that Moscow discovered the advantages that can have in exchange for debt cancellation. As mentioned above the most important advantage was having good relations not only with Israel but also with Syria which could strengthen Russia’s hand in its mediator role. The reason why Syria matters for Russia can be explained in light of three facts. The first fact is that if Russia loses its good relations with the Assad regime, its role as a mediator will probably be damaged.
Secondly, Tartus base which is the only Russian naval base in the Middle East is another factor that makes Syria an important partner for Moscow. Russian Naval Forces were using Tartus as a naval base according to the agreement that was signed in 1971. Moscow started to restore the base since 2008 and this step was evaluated as a strategic decision of Moscow as a response to tense relations with Ukraine. It was said that during its dispute with Ukraine over the presence of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Russia was eyeing the prospect of deploying a naval base in Tartus. From this standpoint since Russia-Ukraine relations are in a good level and the Black Sea Fleet’s presence in Crimea after 2017 extended for another 25 years, Syrian authorities question whether Russia still want to have Tartus naval base or not. However, recent uprising and its aftermath in the Middle East showed the Tartus base is no less important than before.
Thirdly, Russia has retained close ties with Syria since the Soviet era and is currently supplying the country with advanced missiles and other arms. And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid a visit to Damascus last year to strengthen trade ties between the two countries and promote Russia’s waning presence in the Middle East. Moreover Syria was one of the few countries to support Russia in its war with Georgia. For Russia possible regime change may also mean to lose its most important ally in the region.
In conclusion, Russia’s cautious stance was replaced with a firmer posture in terms of possible international intervention to Syria. Since Damascus means not only economic gains but also political card for Moscow, possible regime chance in Syria has a potential to affect Russian influence in the region much more than any country.
*This op-ed was previously published in Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review on 21/4/2011.