Bonds run deep between Russia and Syria

Apart from strong military ties, there are numerous other economic and cultural relations

As the violence in Syria worsened in recent days, amateur video showed the forces of president Bashar Assad rolling through the besieged city of Homs in vintage Soviet battle tanks.

Other photographs, including satellite images released by the state department, showed deployments of Soviet-designed truck-mounted rocket launchers and two models of a self-propelled howitzer whose sweet-scented names in Russian, Gvozdika and Akatsiya (Carnation and Acacia), are no reflection of their fearsome firepower.

Seemingly undeterred by an international outcry, Moscow has worked frantically in recent weeks to preserve its relationship with the increasingly isolated government of Assad, even as the Syrian leader turns his guns on his own citizens and the death toll there mounts. Not only has it continued to arm Syria, but its veto with China of a UN Security Council resolution calling on Assad to resign provided the political cover for a more severe crackdown on rebel forces.

Russia has praised Assad’s call for a constitutional referendum, a step that the United States and other governments have dismissed as meaningless. On Thursday, Russia was one of just a dozen countries, among them China, Iran and North Korea, to vote against a General Assembly resolution urging Assad to step down.

And many analysts say that without Russia’s backing, including a steady supply of weapons, food, medical supplies and other aid, the Assad government will crumble within a matter of months if not sooner. It has done all this in the face of stinging international criticism, and so far it has shown no signs of backing down.

While Moscow has a number of reasons to guard its relations with Damascus, the most concrete, many analysts say, is the longstanding arms sales to Syria. The chief spokesman for Rosoboronexport, the state-owned weapons trading company, said last week that without any new directive from the Kremlin, business with the Assad government would continue as before.

“We understand the situation has become aggravated in Syria,” the spokesman, Vyacheslav N Davidenko, said in an interview. “But since there are no international decisions, and there are no sanctions from the UN Security Council, and there are no other decisions, our cooperation with Syria – the military-technical cooperation – remains quite active and dynamic.”

Regional political events have played a part. The Arab Spring and the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dissipated Russia’s once-powerful influence in the region, transforming the relationship into one of critical importance to prime minister Vladimir Putin, who is running for president and wants to expand Russia’s role as a global powerbroker. “Syria is kind of it in the Middle East at this point for Russia,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russia expert with the Centre for Naval Analyses, a federally financed research group based in Virginia. “That can go a long way toward explaining why Russia stuck with Assad for the last year.”

Alarming trend
The Kremlin is also eager to send a stern message to the west about its distaste for interference in any country’s internal affairs – a point it reiterated in voting against the General Assembly resolution last week. Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly I Churkin, said the resolution “reflects the alarming trend to try to isolate the Syrian leadership, to refuse any contacts with it, to impose a formula for political settlement from outside.”

Instead, Russian officials have called for both the Assad government and the opposition in Syria to agree to a cease-fire. And the Russian foreign ministry has praised the plans for a constitutional referendum. “Moscow sees this step as evidence that the Syrian leadership, despite the complicated security situation, is implementing the promises made to the people of realising deep political and socioeconomic transformations,” the ministry said in a statement.

But if the talk from Russia is heavy on respecting Syria’s autonomy, and avoiding the chaos that has engulfed Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Egypt, arms exports have long anchored the relationship between Moscow and Damascus, including sales over the years of MIG fighter jets, attack helicopters and high-tech air defence systems.

While the ouster and death of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and the imposition of sanctions on Iran have sharply curtailed other formerly lucrative arms markets for Russia, Syria has increased its weapons purchases, including a deal late last year for Yak-130 light attack planes worth more than $550 million.

From 2007 to 2010, the value of Russian arms deals with Syria more than doubled – to $4.7 billion from $2.1 billion – compared with 2003 to 2006, according to an annual report by Richard F. Grimmett, a veteran international security specialist at the congressional Research Service in Washington.

During the same period, the value of Russia’s weapons deals with Iran fell to $300 million from $2.1 billion. In a sign of the intensifying diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin, Russian officials have visited Syria and called for a truce. While Davidenko, the spokesman for Russia’s weapons company, acknowledged the longstanding ties between Moscow and Damascus, he said that some analysts were exaggerating the importance of Syria as an arms customer, noting that India, now the world’s overall largest importer of weapons, had also become Russia’s biggest customer these days.

Still, Davidenko conceded that Russia had lost billions of dollars in potential arms business as a result of sanctions against Iran and the change of power in Libya. In Libya alone, he said, the new government has suspended about $4 billion in previously agreed-upon contracts.

Russian domestic politics are also a concern, especially with the presidential election just two weeks away. More than 2 million Russians work for military-related businesses, and they represent a slice of the electorate that officials never want to malign. On Thursday, the government announced plans to spend about $100 billion through 2020 to modernise its military-industrial complex.

Russia’s ties to Syria are old and deep. A Russian naval station at Tartus, in northern Syria, is its only military installation outside of former Soviet territories. There are numerous other economic and cultural bonds, including the presence of Russian companies working in oil and natural gas in Syria, as well as a proposal for the state-owned nuclear energy company, Rosatom, to build a power plant there.

Syria, however, has a checkered history when it comes to paying for its weapons. Assad arrived in Moscow for his first state visit in 2005, with his country owing Russia about $13.5 billion. Putin welcomed him warmly at a ceremony in St George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace. Their wives met for tea.

At the time, the two leaders signed a “joint declaration on friendship and cooperation,” and Russia agreed to write off nearly 75 per cent of Syria’s unpaid bills.

Many Syrian arms purchases are financed by loans, said Ruslan Aliev, an arms-trade specialist at the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow research group. “They are old customers, but they are very poor,” Aliev said of the Syrians. “They don’t have enough money – not like Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates.”

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