US finds Putin a hard nut to crack

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed US claims that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, arguing that it would be “utter nonsense” to use them at a time the military is regaining territory and containing rebel and jihadi forces. Putin said he is convinced that US allegations are “nothing more than a provocation” manufactured by those who seek to “drag other countries into the Syrian conflict.”

He argued that the US should take its case against the Syrian government to the UN Security Council where Russia and China have vetoed three Western resolutions on Syria over the past two years.  Russia has repeatedly said that any unilateral action without the a Council mandate would be “illegal.”

Russia’s close relationship with Syria goes back to the dark days of the Cold War when President Hafez al-Assad bought arms from the Soviet Union and, along with India, practiced a policy of non-alignment in the East-West contest.  Syria ran up a debt of $13 billion dollars for arms bought from Russia which sells 10 per cent of the weapons it exports to Damascus.  Moscow has written off 73 per cent of that debt in order to maintain the tie.

Russia’s sole military base outside the territory of the former Soviet Union is a naval supply facility at the northern Syrian port of Tartous, which remains under government control.  Russian oil companies have interests in Syria.

Strategic alliance

Russia also sees Syria as part of its strategic backyard in a region that is dominated by the US and its Israeli partner.  This has become particularly true since the 1990s when Moscow found itself battling jihadis with West Asian connections in the North Caucasus. The last thing Russia wants to see is a fractured, chaotic Syria or the emergence of another US client regime in Damascus. Iran’s strategic alliance with Syria was forged in 1980 and was the consequence of the deadly competition between the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Baath party. Syria was the only Arab country to back Tehran during its eight-year war with Baghdad. Damascus closed the pipeline carrying Iraqi oil to export terminals in Turkey, depriving Baghdad of one of its major outlets at a time Gulf shipping was closed to tankers carrying Iraqi crude due to the war.

Damascus also found in Tehran a regional ally against Israel, particularly after Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties and the Palestinians entered a peace process with Israel. Syria was left out in the cold, the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in 1967, was not a major concern for regional and international powers although the 2002 Arab League summit put foward a peace plan calling for Israel’s full evacuation of Arab land seized in 1967 in exchange for full normalisation of relations with Israel.

Until Iraq gravitated into Iran’s sphere of influence in spite (and because) of the US occupation, Syria was Iran’s sole regional ally. For Tehran, under constant pressure from the West and its Gulf allies, Syria was a strategic asset. 

A great deal has been made by Western politicians and pundits over an alleged Shia-connection between Shia Iran and the ruling Syrian Assad family which belongs to the heterodox Shia Alawite community.  This connection is tenuous at best because mainstream Shias do not consider Alawites to be Shias while Syria’s Alawites have identified themselves with the majority Sunni community.

Unlike Russia and Iran, China does not have strong, long-standing ties with Syria. China has developed trade relations with Syria, which imports a third of its goods from China, but Syrian business is not a determinant of Beijing’s policy on the conflict. This factor is Beijing’s flat rejection of Western intervention in any country’s internal affairs. China has its own problems in Tibet, occupied since 1951, and other provinces and rejects Security Council or unilateral or multilateral Western interference based on “humanitarian protection,” the cause, or pretext, put forward for military strikes on Syria.

Finally, China, like Russia and Iran, does not want to see Syria destabilised or divided or ruled by the fundamentalists who have pledged to transform the region into an “Islamic state” which would encourage China’s own Muslim minority to seek autonomy or independence.

Russia, Iran and China - which reject the use of chemical weapons and are signatories of the convention banning their manufacture, sale, and deployment — want a political rather than a military solution for Syria and strongly support the convening of an international conference at Geneva with the aim of securing that goal. The West wavers in its commitment to the political solution in the vain hope that the dysfunctional opposition and 1,000 insurgent groups will be able to oust the government and provide viable governance in a united Syria.

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