Many in the West believe that Russia’s support for Syria stems from Moscow’s desire to profit from selling arms to Bashar al-Assad’s government and maintain its naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus. But these speculations are superficial and misguided. The real reason that Russia is resisting strong international action against the Assad regime is that it fears the spread of Islamic radicalism and the erosion of its superpower status in a world where Western nations are increasingly undertaking unilateral military interventions.
Since 2005, Russian defense contracts with Syria have amounted to only about $5.5 billion — mostly to modernize Syria’s air force and air defenses. And although Syria had been making its scheduled payments in a fairly timely manner, many contracts were delayed by Russia for political reasons. A contract for four MiG-31E fighter planes was annulled altogether. And recently it became known that Russia had actually halted the planned delivery of S-300 mobile antiaircraft missile systems to Syria.
Syria is among Russia’s significant customers, but it is by no means one of the key buyers of Russian arms — accounting for just 5 percent of Russia’s global arms sales in 2011. Indeed, Russia has long refrained from supplying Damascus with the most powerful weapons systems so as to avoid angering Israel and the West — sometimes to the detriment of Russia’s commercial and political ties with Syria.
To put it plainly, arms sales to Syria today do not have any significance for Russia from either a commercial or a military-technological standpoint, and Syria isn’t an especially important partner in military-technological cooperation.
Indeed, Russia could quite easily resell weapons ordered by the Syrians (especially the most expensive items, like fighter jets and missile systems) to third parties, thus minimizing its losses. And even if the Assad government survives, it will be much weaker and is unlikely to be able to continue buying Russian arms.
The Russian Navy’s logistical support facility at Tartus is similarly unimportant. It essentially amounts to two floating moorings, a couple of warehouses, a barracks and a few buildings. On shore, there are no more than 50 seamen. For the Navy, the facility in Tartus has more symbolic than practical significance. It can’t serve as a support base for deploying naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea, and even visits by Russian military ships are carried out more for demonstrative purposes than out of any real need to replenish supplies.
Russia’s current Syria policy basically boils down to supporting the Assad government and preventing a foreign intervention aimed at overthrowing it, as happened in Libya. President Vladimir V. Putin is simply channeling public opinion and the expert consensus while playing his customary role as the protector of Russian interests who curtails the willfulness of the West.
Many Russians believe that the collapse of the Assad government would be tantamount to the loss of Russia’s last client and ally in the Middle East and the final elimination of traces of former Soviet prowess there — illusory as those traces may be. They believe that Western intervention in Syria (which Russia cannot counter militarily) would be an intentional profanation of one of the few remaining symbols of Russia’s status as a great world power.
Such attitudes are further buttressed by widespread pessimism about the eventual outcome of the Arab Spring, and the Syrian revolution in particular. Most Russian observers believe that Arab revolutions have completely destabilized the region and cleared the road to power for the Islamists. In Moscow, secular authoritarian governments are seen as the sole realistic alternative to Islamic dominance.
The continuing struggles in Arab countries are seen as a battle by those who wear neckties against those who do not wear them. Russians have long suffered from terrorism and extremism at the hands of Islamists in the northern Caucasus, and they are therefore firmly on the side of those who wear neckties.
To people in Moscow, Mr. Assad appears not so much as “a bad dictator” but as a secular leader struggling with an uprising of Islamist barbarians. The active support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey’s Islamist government for rebels in Syria only heightens suspicions in Russia about the Islamist nature of the current opposition in Syria and rebels throughout the Middle East.
Finally, Russians are angry about the West’s propensity for unilateral interventionism — not to mention the blatantly broad interpretation of the resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council and the direct violations of those resolutions in Libya.
According to this view, the West, led by America, demonstrated its cynicism, perfidy and a typical policy of double standards. That’s why all the Western moralizing and calls for intervention in Syria are perceived by the Russian public as yet another manifestation of cynical hypocrisy of the worst kind.
There is no doubt that preserving his own power is also on Mr. Putin’s mind as his authoritarian government begins to wobble in the face of growing protests that enjoy political approval and support from the West. He cannot but sympathize with Mr. Assad as a fellow autocratic ruler struggling with outside interference in domestic affairs.
But ideological solidarity is a secondary factor at best. Mr. Putin is capitalizing on traditional Russian suspicions of the West, and his support for Mr. Assad is based on the firm conviction that an Islamist-led revolution in Syria, especially one that receives support through the intervention of Western and Arab states, will seriously harm Russia’s long-term interests.
Ruslan Pukhov is director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a research organization. This essay was translated by Steven Seymour from the Russian.