Speaking to a group of six international newspaper editors on the eve of his re-election as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin said, “We don’t have a special relationship with Syria.”
Putin’s claim was, to say the least, disingenuous.
Throughout an increasingly violent uprising in Syria, which erupted a year ago this month, Russia has been one of Syria’s staunchest allies. Russia – the world’s largest oil producer – has defended President Bashar Assad’s dictatorial regime and replenished his armoury, thereby stiffening his resolve to hang on despite repeated calls for his resignation.
But in the spirit of bringing about national reconciliation in Syria, Russia has called for a ceasefire and urged the Syrian government to implement reforms.
Indeed, Russia’s outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, issued a blunt warning a few months ago, saying the Syrian leadership would “have to go” if it failed to reform the autocratic political system. Beyond this rhetoric, however, Russia has thrown Syria, internationally maligned and isolated, a lifeline.
Having accused anti-Assad western powers of hewing to a double standard, Putin has charged they have pressured Syria to pull back its forces from battle zones without having correspondingly asked rebel fighters to lay down their arms. In addition, Putin has described demands for Assad’s ouster as blatant interference in Syria’s internal affairs and an unwarranted challenge to its sovereignty.
Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, whose country once had close bonds with Syria but now openly supports the rebels, recently predicted that Russia would soon grow weary of supporting Syria and join efforts to call for Assad’s removal. As Gul put it, “I think in time Russia will see its support has been abused by the Syrian regime. They will recognize this fact when they see the heavy weapons being used against the people in Syria. That is not very tolerable, not even for Russia.”
Moscow may already be paying heed to such criticism, having signed a recent UN Security Council statement deploring the humanitarian crisis in the city of Homs, one of whose neighbourhoods was indiscriminately bombarded by the Syrian army.
Yet on the day Russia agreed to sign this statement, it voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning Syria for committing crimes against humanity. In addition, Russia boycotted a Friends of Syria conference in Tunis critical of the Syrian government. More to the point, Russia, along with China, has vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions concerning Syria.
On Oct. 5, 2011, Russia objected to what would have been the first legally binding resolution since the eruption of the Syrian rebellion, the bloodiest of the Arab Spring.
The final draft, watered down by sponsors Britain and France to avoid a Russian or Chinese veto, was fairly toothless. It condemned “continued grave and systematic human rights violations and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities” and urged all states “to exercise vigilance and restraint” before supplying weapons to Syria.”
Nonetheless, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, found it objectionable, claiming it was based on “a philosophy of confrontation” and contained “an ultimatum of sanctions.”
On Feb. 4, Russia scuttled another relatively innocuous Security Council resolution, this one based on an Arab League plan urging Assad to resign and cede power to his vice-president and a unity government.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow had no alternative but to veto this resolution because it absolved the Syrian opposition of responsibility for the ongoing violence and unrealistically demanded the return of Syrian troops back to their barracks.
On Feb. 17, Russia voted against a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution endorsing the Arab League plan, characterizing it as an attempt “to isolate” Syria and “impose an external formula for a political settlement.”
It passed by a margin of 137-12, with 17 abstentions, underscoring Russia’s isolation on this issue.
Russia objected to all three resolutions, particularly the first two, claiming they would be misused to foster regime change in Damascus.
Last year, with a civil war raging in Libya, Russia agreed not to veto a UN Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone there to protect civilians. When western powers – the United States, France, Britain and Canada – used the resolution to justify air strikes in Libya with the aim of unseating Moammar Gadhafi, a long-standing Russian ally and arms buyer, Russia felt both deceived and betrayed.
“We don’t want a repeat of what’s happened in Libya,” Putin said recently by way of clarifying Russia’s stance on Syria.
Having been stung by western prevarications in Libya, Russia insists that the crisis in Syria must be resolved through internal political dialogue and without foreign intervention.
Charging the West is stoking conflict in Syria by arming the rebels, an assertion yet to be verified, Moscow recently issued a tart warning suggesting that western meddling may trigger “a very big war” that could spill beyond the borders of the Middle East.
By supporting Assad, albeit with reservations, Russia hopes to achieve several overlapping objectives: prop up an old friend from Soviet times, contain western influence in Syria and project power in a region fairly close to its southern border.
Although Russia’s political and military relationship with Syria remains substantial today, it reached its apex during the Cold War era from the 1960s onward.
On the eve of the Six Day War, the then Soviet Union circulated a false report asserting Israel was massing forces on the Syrian border, prompting Egypt to send troops to the Sinai Peninsula and expel a UN peacekeeping force from Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Soviet fear-mongering heightened tensions and was a contributory cause of the 1967 war, during which Moscow severed diplomatic relations with Israel.
With Syria having been defeated and the Golan Heights having been captured by Israel, Moscow resupplied the Syrian armed forces with a fresh batch of sophisticated weaponry. Soviet support for Syria was just as unwavering during the Yom Kippur War.
Moscow re-established formal ties with Israel before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but retained a foothold in Syria. Russia, at present, maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only one outside its borders, and retains its status as Syria’s single most important source of weapons and munitions.
Under Israeli pressure, Moscow in 2009 halted plans to sell MIG-31 fighter jets to Syria. Otherwise, Russia has rejected Israeli overtures to stop the sale of advanced weapon systems – missiles and air-defence batteries – to Syria. With more than two million Russians working in armaments industries, Russia is likely to continue selling weapons to Syria.
Russia’s alliance with Syria sometimes produces bizarre results. Recently, Medvedev bestowed the prestigious Pushkin Medal on a Syrian writer/poet who has publicly praised the Arab terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and has voiced antisemitic views, such as comparing Jews with William Shakespeare’s villain, Shylock.
This column appears in the March 22 print issue of The CJN