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What's Russia Doing in Syria and Why

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has killed some 80,000 of his citizens and driven another 1.7 million into neighboring countries. Unsurprisingly, he has few foreign friends these days. But two have played a pivotal part in his survival: Iran and Russia.

Iran is bound to Assad by religious and strategic ties. The Alawites, the minority Muslim sect that dominates Assad's regime, are an offshoot of Shi'a Islam, Iran's state religion. Syria has a Sunni majority, but Iran sees an Alawite-run Syria as a counterbalance to the Sunni Persian Gulf monarchies. Assad's Syria is also Iran's conduit for supplying Hezbollah, the Shiite political-party-cum-paramilitary organization that is powerhouse in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah, Iran's ally and Israel's enemy, is now fighting alongside Assad's forces.

The role of Russia, Assad's second savior, can't be explained by religious or ideological kinship. Yet Russian backing has been essential to Assad's survival. (Though the support he retains among Syria's other non-Sunni minorities, fearful about their future should the radical Sunni Islamists in the anti-Assad insurgency prevail, is sometimes obscured in press reports.) Moscow (along with China) has nixed Security Council resolution aimed at condemning Assad or imposing sanctions on his regime.

Russia has insisted that the Gulf monarchies and other states aiding the anti-Assad insurgents are intervening in a civil war in violation of Syria's sovereign rights. This may be a minority opinion, but Moscow has made the case consistently and forcefully, insisting that the only hope for peace in Syria is a political settlement.

So long as the United States believed that Assad was doomed and would soon fall, it didn't pay much heed to the Russian line. But now, the Obama administration, having witnessed Assad's staying power and the divisions within the Syrian opposition, is working with Russia to convene a peace conference later this summer. The goal is to achieve a negotiated settlement between Assad and his enemies.

Even if this conclave gathers, it's unlikely to produce a deal that ends the carnage in Syria. But what's significant is that the Russian position, once marginalized, has gained ground.

That's not all. Russia has armed Assad. And recent reports indicate that Russian MiG-29 fighter jets and S-300 air defense missiles may be headed to Syria. This is a big step by Moscow. Both armaments will make it more hazardous for NATO, assuming it acts without U.N. authorization, to impose a no-flight zone over Syria. Israel, which has already struck Syria to stem the flow of Iranian arms to Hezbollah, will also have to reckon with a new reality.

The Russians haven't yet delivered the S-300s, or more MiG-29s to add to the 40-64 Syria already has. Still, Vladimir Putin has been unmoved by Israeli, American and European efforts to persuade him not to send the S-300s, which Syria has never had. Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon says it will "know what to do" if the missiles arrive. Russia has warned that it won't tolerate the loss of Russian lives resulting from efforts to stop its arms deliveries to Syria. There's a crisis in the making.

So why is Russia bent on backing back a blood-soaked, isolated regime? The usual explanations are that Syria buys lots of Russian arms and that the Syrian port of Tartus is an important "base" for Russia's Mediterranean Fleet.

Both theories are simplistic.

Yes, Russia does sell lot of arms -- $15 billion worth in 2012. But Syria hasn't been among its big customers; China, India, Algeria and Vietnam have. Indeed, Moscow had to reschedule the debt Syria amassed because of arms purchases extending back to the Soviet years.

Current Russian arms deliveries to Assad are hardly massive and are likely bankrolled by Iran or Russian credit. Moreover, because Syria will be an economic ruin no matter which side wins the war, it won't be signing huge arms deals with Russia any time soon -- indeed none at all if Assad's opponents prevail.

Tartus does provide the small contingent of vessels constituting Russia Mediterranean "fleet" facilities for resupplying, conducting repairs and showing the flag. Well, maybe some surveillance, too, but that's about it. Tartus is scarcely comparable to the naval bases America has in, say, Bahrain or Japan. Besides, the Russian Navy is a shell of its Soviet counterpart.

Is Tartus part of the equation for Russia? Yes. Is it a key element? No.

So what does explain Russian's tenacity in Syria?

For openers, Russia has never liked American-led humanitarian interventions -- not just under Putin, but also under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, whom American leaders embraced as a fellow democrat and reformer. Recall Yeltsin's angry reactions to NATO's airstrikes in the former Yugoslavia.

Moscow has consistently condemned such missions as a cover for America's bid to use its unrivaled power to reshape the world through a selective morality that overlooks its allies' and friends' misdeeds, as well as its own.

Russia (and China) insists that humanitarian interventions should rightly be authorized by the U.N. Security Council (where Russia wields a veto). But the U.N.-sanctioned, NATO-led war against Mu'ammar Qaddafi's Libya demonstrated to Russia that even such operations could prove beyond its control.

Moscow's take on the Libya war is that a Security Council resolution crafted to protect civilians ended up enabling regime change, which was never the original intent. Russia is determined that Syria not be Libya redux.

Two other considerations shape Russian conduct in Syria.

One is the quest for prestige. Russia has lost the clout and standing the Soviet Union had in world politics. The nationalist in Vladimir Putin wants to re-establish his country's status as a great power. Putin is hardly alone in Russia when it comes to such nationalist nostalgia. The Syrian war is an opportunity to show that Russia does matter and must be taken seriously and accorded respect.

Another motive that moves Moscow's Syria policy is preventing the rise of a radical Islamist regime, which is what the Russia leadership fears will happen if Assad falls.

Averting such an outcome in Syria matters to Russia, which faces a long-running, full-scale Islamist insurgency in its predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republics (one of which is Dagestan, made infamous by the Boston Marathon bombings) that the Russian Empire annexed in the latter half of the 19th century.

Now there are signs of militant Islam in a far more significant Russian republic: Tatarstan. Conquered by the Russian Tsars in the 16th century, Tatarstan lies some 500 miles east of Moscow in the Volga River region, has a slight Muslim majority, and about 4 million inhabitants.

There's an even larger context. Russia has more Muslims (about 16 million) than any other European country, and their proportion in the Russian population is projected to rise from just below 12 percent now to 14.3 percent in 2030. Radical Islam has hardly made major inroads among Russia's Muslims, but that doesn't mean that demography doesn't influence Russian calculations in Syria.

Weave all these strands together and here's what's apparent: Russia is deep into the deadly game underway in Syria. Don't expect Moscow to fold its cards and leave the table.