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How Russia Has Been Hedging Its Bets on Syria

Posted: 04/25/2012 1:08 pm

Since Russia callously vetoed the first UN resolution on Syria in October last year, many struggled to discern Kremlin's long-standing support and reluctance to directly condemn the Assad regime for the use of violence against its own people. As the violence continues unabated and Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, whose terms were softened by Russia, is yet to be fully implemented by the Syrian Regime since it went into effect on April 12, I predict that Russia will ultimately gain influence in Syria and more broadly in the region as a political solution is brokered.

After Leonid Brezhnev, then president of the Soviet Union, signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Hafez Al-Assad in 1980, Russia has forged an enduring alliance with Syria. This has supported military cooperation between the two nations, strengthening Syria's stance in the region and has also been instrumental in countering the U.S.-Israeli hegemony balance, established during the Cold War.

As the Syrian government douses its Soviet designed T-72 tanks in sky blue paint and dresses up its military in Police uniforms as the UN observers pass through the main flash-points of the uprising, Russia continues to hedge its bets in terms of its policy on Syria. The peace plan separately proposed by Russia is a show of its strength and influence in the region. Fully implementing the peace-plan, which includes enforcing a cease-fire and a commitment to addressing "the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people," would be a death-sentence for the Assad regime. As a result the Syrian regime's acceptance of Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan can be seen as an appeasement to its Russian Allies, and has only served to buy the Assad regime more time to contain the revolt and further divide the opposition.

Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution on Syria twice, first in October then again in February, despite the fact that the draft resolutions did not impose sanctions nor authorize military action. Russia claimed that it offered too many concessions towards anti-government protestors and would prejudge a dialogue between the various oppositional groups. It also alleged that following a similar resolution on Libya earlier last year, NATO had exceeded its mandate under the UN Security Council resolution, which ultimately allowed a military intervention to take place in Libya. Before the uprising in Libya, Russia maintained close ties with Qaddafi through billions of dollars worth of arms, oil and gas exploration contracts and a project to build a railway between Surt and Benghazi. Since the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya, Russian arms exporter Rosboronexport has lost billions of dollars in sales and the fate of the contracts signed between Russia and Libya under Qaddafi remain uncertain since it was not part of the coalition that ended the Qaddafi regime. As result, Russia intends to maintain its influence in brokering a peace in order to prevent a similar fate for itself in Syria.

Furthermore, since 2007, 72% of arms imported into Syria have come from Russia. Russia has maintained a close relationship with the Assad regime in order to ensure the billion-dollar market for arms. In addition, the port at Tartus is an important military base and an entry point for Russia to the rest of the Middle East. As a result, Syria continues to be of geographic importance through the borders it shares with Israel, Iraq and its proximity to neighboring Iran, another close political and economic ally to both Syria and Russia that has become increasingly important in light of recent deteriorating relations with the West. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Russia has been involved in developing the energy industry in Iran through Russian companies Gazprom and Lukoil. If Syria is destabilized, the alliance forged over decades between Syria, Iran and Russia will be destabilized and Iran risks becoming politically unstable as well.

As Bashar's prospect for containing the uprising look increasingly dimmer in the long run, Russia's approval of the peace plan signals its loss of patience with the Syrian regime. Although Russia is far from supporting UN sanctions against Syria, within the last few weeks Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has already criticized the Syrian governments excessive use of force and lack of reforms. Russia may be planning for a future in Syria without Bashar Al-Assad and hopes to act as broker for peace to retain influence in Syria and more broadly in the region. Vladimir Putin leveraged his new Presidency weight behind the implementation of Kofi Annan's six-point plan, stating that Assad regime would comply, in its latest show of strength and influence. Russia is now the key to the survival of the Assad regime and only when it begins to see the Assad regime as a liability will Syria be settled.

 
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