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In Syria, Russia Seeks To Preserve Middle East Foothold


Russian Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Sochi in 2008.
Russian Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Sochi in 2008.
MOSCOW -- In an effort to win Russian backing, Western powers this week circulated a significantly watered-down draft UN Security Council statement on the unrest in Syria.

Moscow finally relented on March 21, agreeing to support a nonbinding statement expressing "the gravest concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria" and threatening "further steps" if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did not comply with a peace plan pushed by Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon followed the news by saying he hoped "this strong and united action by the council will mark a turning point in the international community's response to the crisis."

Russia’s reluctance to give the West a blank check in the Syrian conflict reflects its deep-seated fear of relinquishing a key -- and final -- Soviet-era foothold in the region as a new balance of power emerges in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, analysts say.

Soviet 'Remnant'

Moscow has enjoyed close economic, political, and military ties with Damascus's ruling elite since the 1970s. Russian arms companies remain its chief suppliers of military hardware and the Russian Navy holds a military outpost at Tartus on Syria's Mediterranean coast -- the only base outside the former Soviet Union.

The Kremlin lost a key Middle East ally when the regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's regime fell in Libya last year, making its ties with Assad more important.

"The relationship between Syria and Russia is the last remnant of Soviet politics in the Middle East," Aleksei Malashenko. a foreign policy expert at Carnegie Moscow Center, says. "If not Bashar and Syria, then who will be in line with Russia? Nobody. This is the final point of the post-Soviet presence in the region. It is extremely difficult for [Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir] Putin and the Russian elite to accept this."

Russia has twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that were backed by the Western powers and the Arab League. The documents would have condemned Assad's brutal crackdown that the world body says has killed more than 8,000 civilians. It has also continued to export arms to Syria.

With the conflict in Syria still raging, the full scale of current weapons deliveries is unclear. But the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that Russia supplied Syria with 72 percent of its arms imports from 2007-11. The institute also says Russia still plans to deliver 36 Yak-130 trainer/combat aircraft and 24 MiG-29M2 aircraft. The Yak-130 deal alone is reportedly worth $550 million.

A 'New Middle East'

The economics of the relationship are certainly important, analysts say. But more vital is Russia's preoccupation with maintaining political influence in a rapidly changing region in the wake of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

"More important than the economic factors are the political ones because a new Middle East is now taking shape," Aleksandr Konovalov, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Analysis, says. "There is a new situation in the Maghreb, and a new balance of power. Egypt is not disappearing in political terms, but its role is getting smaller. There is a new order in this region and Russia is definitely not indifferent to how it emerges."

More recently, however, there were signs that Moscow was softening its position. On March 19, Russia joined calls by the International Committee of the Red Cross for a daily two-hour humanitarian cease-fire from "all armed groups...without delay."

Moreover, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used unusually sharp language on March 20 in criticizing Assad.

"We believe the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appearance of peaceful protests and ... is making very many mistakes," Lavrov told the Russian radio station Kommersant-FM. "This, unfortunately, has in many ways led the conflict to reach such a severe stage."

On March 21, the foreign minister said Moscow supported the new UN statement "fully," adding that "the most important thing is that there are no ultimatums."

Moscow was saying that any UN resolution calling for cease-fire must be honored simultaneously by both the opposition and Assad's forces. The U.S. State Department on March 19 said that Assad's forces should hold their fire first because they bear "primary responsibility for the violence."

Lessons Of Libya

Analysts say that potential for Russian cooperation with the West on Syria is stymied by bad blood from the outcome of UN-mandated NATO action in Libya. Moscow fears that Western and Arab countries who want Assad to relinquish power might use a far-reaching UN resolution to impose their own solutions on Syria without Russia's input.

Moscow gave its blessing to a NATO no-fly zone and air strikes in Libya when it opted not to exercise its veto on the UN Security Council in voting on Resolution 1973 in March 2011. But it later lambasted NATO for overstepping its authority and using it as cover to oust Qaddafi.

"Russia was very bitter, fearful, and upset by the way its agreement was used in the resolution on Libya," Konovalov says. "Russia believes that the [NATO] alliance's action greatly exceeded the mandate that it was given by the UN resolution that Russia did not veto."

Nonetheless, Malashenko argues that it is "only a matter of time" before Assad "leaves" -- in which case, Moscow will need to change its policy.

"It could happen maybe tomorrow, maybe in December," Malashenko says. "But he will leave -- that's no doubt. I repeat it, Russia must think about the future."

With Reuters, AP, and AFP reporting

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