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Syria Deeply Asks: What is the Relationship Like Between Russia and Syria?

As a regular feature, inspired by your questions about the Syria conflict, we’ve rounded up answers from some of the top minds in our network. If you’d like to submit a question for us to tackle, send it to [email protected].

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Question: What is the relationship like between Syria and Russia? (Via Quora)

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy

The number one reason underlying the Russian position is their attitude towards a more Islamist government in Syria. They are grappling about how their own Muslim communities, particularly in the south of Russia – which they call an island of Islamism – connect with rest of the Islamic continent.

The fundamental ties that bind Russia and Syria are security ties, particularly with regards to the military, which has a long-standing relationship. There are also commercial, personal and religious ties. The relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox patriarchy in Syria is strong, and they share concerns about their future.

Russia probably has “red lines” with Islamic extremists and the diplomatic red line, which is no regime change by force. Regarding chemical weapons, I think the U.S. and Russia and others, particularly Israel, see eye to eye on this.

Having regime change again forced upon a key Middle East ally by the West and regional forces supporting the West are not going to happen again like Libya, or a rerun of Iraq. Russia is providing weapons to the regime … they would say it is legitimate activity based on fulfilling contracts. But they know that is not helping the militarization of the conflict. Russia is providing advanced anti-aircraft missiles and other hardware, and training, technical know-how and assistance. That is direct intervention.

Russia is not convinced that there is a better solution other than a continuation of the conflict. Until there’s a better deal they’re going to be realists. But in the Libyan case Russia turned around. It all depends on the balance of forces on the ground, and where the regime is going – whether the regime goes down wholesale, or whether elements of the regime can be engaged in a change or transition. If Russia goes down the path of supporting the regime to the bitter end, they will lose a lot, and so will the international community. Stabilizing Syria will require all hands on deck, and Russia would be a useful tool in that regard.

The Russians can’t affect change all by themselves, but they can certainly set the mood if they decide to take a tougher line. But they are not in a rush, because that would test their own influence to affect change.

Wayne White, former senior U.S. State Department intelligence official and expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute:

The Assad regime in Syria is the last surviving government that could be characterized as a Russian “ally.” Past support for Syria militarily remained – at least until the beginning of the uprising against Assad and co. – a way of indirectly currying favor with a number of Arab and other Muslim governments in the region still opposed to peace with Israel, or what has transpired between Israel and the Palestinians since Bibi Netanyahu’s first term as Israeli prime minister in the late 1990s. In exchange, Moscow retained a major naval base in Syria (the only one it has in the Mediterranean) and considerable political and intelligence cooperation with the Assad regime.

Because of Syria’s less than prosperous economic state, the Russians have been generous concerning their arms sales to Syria, and doubtless stand to lose quite a bit of money still owed them should this regime fall (since any successor government is likely to ignore such obligations following Moscow’s support for the Damascus regime during its 2011-2013 bloodbath).

Finally, with relations typically strained between the Kremlin and the White House since the beginning of this century, Russia’s two top leaders may well view supporting Bashar al-Assad as yet another way of expressing displeasure with much of the criticism they have received from Washington predating the Syrian uprising, and demonstrating that their Middle East policy is not subject to American approval.

In tangible terms – arms, ammunition etc. – it is difficult to know just how important Russia is, as opposed to Iran, for example. In such situations, the Russians characteristically share whatever intelligence they have concerning the opposition as well as the intentions of those governments supporting the rebels, and their overall capabilities in that area greatly exceed those of the Syrian regime. They also probably have assisted the regime in its own collection of intelligence on the rebels.

The most important contribution to the ability of the Assad regime to survive, and possibly even prevail, is Russia’s blockage of more forceful UN Security Council resolutions that might have emboldened the US, the UK and France in particular to do far more for the opposition. So even if tangible Russian support in terms of munitions is not all that critical in enabling the Syrian regime to survive, it certainly has complicated the ability of the West to squeeze Syria much harder.

The recent US–Russian agreement to hold a conference in which the regime might engage the opposition is fairly consistent with Moscow’s long-standing desire for a negotiated solution to the crisis with the regime at the conference table. To the extent any policy shift could be involved, it would appear that shift might have occurred in Washington … to Russia’s considerable satisfaction

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