Rus­sia clings to a cru­cial power base in Syria up­ris­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCARBOROUGH

Rus­sia would lose a source of rev­enue and a Mid­dle East power base if Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad falls — two rea­sons why Moscow has armed the regime and blocked votes to let the United Na­tions pun­ish Da­m­as­cus.

The 50-year al­liance be­tween the two coun­tries emerged in the spot­light two weeks ago as Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton dropped her nor­mally cor­dial tone to­ward Moscow and be­rated it for con­tin­u­ing to arm a regime that hu­man rights groups say is killing pro­test­ers and in­no­cent civil­ians.

Rus­sia views Syria as its stage from which to in­flu­ence mil­i­tary, po­lit­i­cal and en­ergy poli­cies in the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing Is­raeli ne­go­ti­a­tions with its Arab neigh­bors and Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions.

Moscow op­er­ates its only naval base in the Mediter­ranean Sea at the Syr­ian city of Tar­tus and gen­er­ates hard cash by sell­ing to Da­m­as­cus weapons, in­clud­ing anti-air­craft mis­siles and at­tack he­li­copters.

Rus­sia is a mem­ber of the Mid­dle East Quar­tet — with the U.S., the Euro­pean Union and the United Na­tions — de­signed to me­di­ate Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace talks. In that role, Moscow has used Syria as a stage to meet with var­i­ous Arab lead­ers, in­clud­ing Khaled Me­shaal of Ha­mas, a U.S.-des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist group.

Moscow also sup­ports Syria as a way to in­flu­ence Iran, whose en­ergy poli­cies can af­fect the prices Rus­sia reaps for its own nat­u­ral gas and oil re­serves. Iran also uses Da­m­as­cus, pri­mar­ily as a chan­nel to pro­vide cash and weapons to Hezbol­lah, a U.S.-des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist group in Le­banon that seeks to de­stroy Is­rael.

If Mr. As­sad goes and a proWestern govern­ment takes over, the theoc­racy in Iran could fall next, leav­ing Rus­sia in its quest to be­come a world power with­out a true part­ner in a strate­gi­cally im­por­tant re­gion.

“It dates back to the 1960s, so it is one of the long­est-last­ing bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ships in the re­gion,” said Robert Spring­borg, a pro­fes­sor on Mid­dle East pol­i­tics and eco­nomics at the Naval Post­grad­u­ate School in Mon­terey, Calif.

“Its present im­por­tance is not only that it pro­vides Rus­sia a naval base on the [Mediter­ranean] and lever­age over Syria, hence over its re­la­tions with Le­banon and Is­rael, but even more im­por­tantly Syr­ian sup­port for Iran is vi­tal to Rus­sia,” Mr. Spring­borg said.

“Iran is the linch­pin in Cen­tral Asian-Mid­dle East­ern oil and gas tran­sit, so if it were to be­come pro-Western once again, it would squeeze Rus­sian dom­i­na­tion of gas mar­kets in Europe,” he said.

Rus­sia and China blocked a U.N. Security Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion strongly con­demn­ing Mr. As­sad and urg­ing coun­tries to stop sup­ply­ing arms. The Pen­tagon con­firmed last week that the regime is us­ing Rus­sian Mi17 he­li­copter gun­ships to at­tack pro­test­ers and civil­ians.

“Rus­sia has con­tin­ued to pro- vide weaponry to the al-As­sad govern­ment as vi­o­lence in­ten­si­fies,” a Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice re­port said this year.

There are no firm re­ports that Rus­sian mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers are help­ing Mr. As­sad put down rebels.

But Moscow main­tains a ro­bust em­bassy in Da­m­as­cus staffed with in­tel­li­gence offi- cers who can re­lay in­for­ma­tion about anti-As­sad forces. War­ships visit the base at Tar­tus, and thou­sands of Rus­sians are work­ing in Syria, some as con-

“It dates back to the 1960s, so it is one of the long­est-last­ing bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ships in the re­gion,” said Robert Spring­borg, a pro­fes­sor on Mid­dle East pol­i­tics and eco­nomics at the Naval Post­grad­u­ate School in Mon­terey, Calif. “Its present im­por­tance is not only that it pro­vides Rus­sia a naval base on the [Mediter­ranean] and lever­age over Syria, hence over its re­la­tions with Le­banon and Is­rael, but even more im­por­tantly Syr­ian sup­port for Iran is vi­tal to Rus­sia,” Mr. Spring­borg said.

trac­tors to main­tain Rus­sian­made weaponry.

At 400,000 troops, Syr ia main­tains one of the re­gion’s largest mil­i­tary forces, armed pri­mar­ily by the now-de­funct Soviet Union in decades gone by and by Rus­sia today.

“Rus­sia has a long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ship there,” said former U. N. Am­bas­sador John R. Bolton. “They’ve got im­por­tant mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties. They’ve got a long re­la­tion­ship in sell­ing weapons to Syria, not just th­ese he­li­copter gun­ships, but all kinds of weapons sys­tems go­ing back decades.

“Iran has a lot at stake it­self in keep­ing As­sad in power, and Rus­sia has a lot at stake in sup­port­ing Iran. So when you put it all together, it’s very im­por­tant.”

Rus­sia’s op­po­si­tion to tough mea­sures against Syria also dove­tails with its de­sire to emerge as a world power.

“For some time, es­pe­cially af­ter Libya, the Rus­sians have been con­cerned about the West over­throw­ing regimes that are friendly to Moscow,” Mr. Bolton said. “Un­der what they would say is the guise of hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance, the Rus­sians see one regime af­ter an­other be­ing top­pled.

“For the Rus­sians, that adds a kind of strate­gic con­text to the im­por­tance of the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship they have with Syria.”

Mr. Bolton said that if the As­sad regime falls, and with it the Ba’ath Party struc­ture, the Rus­sians would work to get a fa­vor­able govern­ment in power so it would not lose the naval base and the diplo­matic stage.

“A pro-Western regime from the Rus­sian point of view is a non-starter,” he said.

Michael O’Han­lon, a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, said Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin “likes his al­lies and doesn’t have many.”

“He likes to be a thorn in our side,” he said, and “is still mad” about NATO in­ter­ven­tion that brought down Libyan strong­man Moam­mar Gad­hafi.

De­spite Rus­sia’s sup­port of a man whom the U.S. wants out of of­fice, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to re­fer to Moscow as a “part­ner” in end­ing the vi­o­lence in Syria.

“What I can tell you is that we have been in con­sul­ta­tions with our Rus­sian part­ners for some time now about the way for­ward in Syria and about so­lic­it­ing their sup­port for the kinds of in­ter­na­tional and eco­nomic pres­sure that we be­lieve needs to con­tinue to be ap­plied against the As­sad regime,” Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pen­tagon spokesman, told re­porters two weeks ago.

Asked whether Rus­sian arms sup­plies are en­abling Syria’s crack­down, Capt. Kirby said: “We cer­tainly un­der­stand that many of the Syr­i­ans’ sys­tems and pro­grams are Rus­sian­made and that they, as a na­tion-state, would seek to re­sup­ply and re­fur­bish those sys­tems, those pro­grams. But I’m not go­ing to, you know, get into con­demn­ing the arms sales be­tween two coun­tries here from the podium.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pro­test­ers chant slo­gans against the Syr­ian regime and Rus­sia’s sup­port of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad June 17 as they burn a ban­ner de­pict­ing Mr. As­sad, his brother, Ma­her As­sad, and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the por t city of Si­don, Le­banon.

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