After the Russian intervention in Syria many have been speculating to why would official Russia care about Syria or Bashar al-Assad. Many believe that Russia’s support comes from their desire to profit from selling arms to Syria’s current ruler Bashar al-Assad and to keep its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. However, these speculations are far from the truth.
Since 2006, Russian arms sales to Syria were only about $5.5 billion – mostly linked with Syria’s air force and air defenses.
Moreover, even though Bashar al-Assad’s government has been making its payments in a timely manner, numerous contracts were terminated or delayed by Russia due to political reasons. For example, a contracted agreement for 4 MiG-31E fighter jets was terminated by Russia. Also, recently it became publically known that Moscow had stopped a planned delivery of S-300 mobile anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria. By no means is Syria the most important customer of Russian arms, as it accounts for only 5% of Russia’s yearly global weapons sales. Official Moscow refrained itself from selling their most powerful weapons systems to Syria in order not to ruin their diplomatic relations with Israel or further anger the West. This certainly wasn’t a commercial decision but a political one.
Simply put, Russia has no commercial nor military-technological interest in Syria, and Bashar al-Assad’s government isn’t an important partner. With China and India as emerging powers and military partners of Russia, official Moscow doesn’t have to worry whether they will have a buyer for their arms.
When we talk about the Russian Navy’s facility at Tartus it must be noted that it has no particular strategic value as it cannot be used as a support base for deploying forces in the Mediterranean.
So why would Russia care for Syria or Assad? – The truth is, they really don’t.
It all comes down to 3 things:
- Russia establishing itself as a world power once again.
- Re-establishing Russia’s sphere of influence through the Eurasian Union.
- Confronting the Islamic threat which has spawned in Russia’s “backyard”
1. Russia establishing itself as a world power once again
Russia fears of the erosion of its emerging superpower status in a world where NATO keeps minimizing Russia’s range of influence. They aim to prevent a foreign intervention which would appoint a new government, one that would be turned to the West instead to Russia. Even though Russia couldn’t cope (militarily) with a Western intervention in Syria, they are playing a bluff and while the U.S. hesitates to step in, Russia joins the fight and creates the image of a re-established super power all the while portraying the U.S. as a power in decline.
If they were ready to confront Ukraine, annex Crimea and risk a full blown war with NATO for the very same reasons – it comes as no surprise that they are continuing their foreign policy by entering the war in Syria.
With Ukraine turning to the West, Georgia joining NATO and many other Russia’s neighbors deciding the same, Russia feels cornered by NATO and it seeks to regain its range of influence.
2. Re-establishing Russia’s sphere of influence through the Eurasian Union
Many Russians believe that the collapse of Assad’s government would mean the final elimination of traces of former Soviet influence in the region. Russia’s neighbors were tempted to join the EU and NATO as they didn’t really see Moscow as a center of power. However, since the beginning of the Ukrainian and Syrian civil war many of them have changed their minds.
It has went unnoticed in the media, but since the Ukrainian conflict many nations withdrew their candidacy for EU and NATO and have showed readiness to join the Eurasian Union with Russia as the leading country.
Tajikistan announces its readiness to join the Eurasian Union.
Kirgizstan announces its intent to join the Eurasian Union.
Armenia withdrew its EU membership candidacy and joins the Eurasian Union.
Georgia (a member of NATO) considers joining the Eurasian Union, but in the end turns to the EU.
Break-away regions of Moldova (Transnistria), Ukraine (Donetsk and Lugansk) and Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) have expressed their willingness to join the Eurasian Union.
So, by entering the war in Syria Russia has been flexing its muscles, all the while doing its best to intervene according to international law as they don’t want to give the West a reason to enter the war more actively.
3. Confronting the Islamic threat which has spawned in Russia’s “backyard”.
Russians are pessimistic about the eventual outcome of the Syrian revolution. Most of them believe that the Arab Spring has completely destabilized the Middle East and North Africa and has paved the way for Islamic terrorist organizations. They believe that only a secular authoritarian government could control the threat of emerging terrorist organizations linked to Islam.
Furthermore they have already suffered from Islamic terrorism in the northern Caucasus and they are firmly against Islamic extremism. To Russians, Assad doesn’t appear as a “vicious dictator” but as a secular leader which has to be firm with Islamic barbarians. It comes down to picking the lesser evil.
And finally, Moscow had enough of West’s inclination towards unilateral military interventions and not to mention U.S.A.’s foreign policy which they believe has paved the way for ISIS to dominate in the Middle East.