Why Russia supports Syria’s Assad

Russia’s response to the crisis in Syria has been exactly the opposite of the policy of the United States and European Union. While the US and EU openly call for Syria’s President Assad to resign, Russia is calling for Assad to remain in power to implement his promised reforms.

“We do not share the United States and the European Union’s point of view regarding President (Bashar) al-Assad and will continue to pursue our consistent and principled stance on Syria.” Assad needs to be given “sufficient time to implement the declared large-scale programme of social, political and economic reforms,” the foreign ministry said.

Whenever the US or EU take a position on an issue of foreign policy, analysts question why they have reached that view, often arguing that business interests – particularly oil interests – are the true driver of their foreign policy. With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to consider why Russia’s policy in relation to Syria is diametrically opposed to US and EU policy.

From my perspective, there are two main drivers to Russia’s Syria policy. The first is its general worldview – a realist one that sees international politics as a zero-sum dog eat dog game.  The second is Russia’s clear business interests in Syria – notably the interests of Russia’s arms industry.

Russian Realism

First, Russia’s general worldview. Having spent most of the past decade directly observing Russia’s foreign policy, and having spent a lot of time analysing its historical foreign policy, I have very rarely seen it deviate from the principle of realism – that is to say, basing its foreign policy on the national interest and its own security.

(The best explanation of Russia’s foreign policy I’ve ever seen, by the way, is Igor Ivanov’s “A New Russian Diplomacy“, published in 2002, while he was Russia’s foreign minister. Although self serving to an extent in justifying Russia’s actions, Ivanov is unwavering in his belief that “our only reliable foreign policy reference point was the consistent protection of our national interests.”)

And Syria is no exception to this. Russia has invested a great deal of energy in building its relationship with the current Syrian Government. It has written billions of dollars worth of loans ($10 billion was written off in 2005), and has made billions of dollars of arms sales to Syria, one of its most reliable clients (more on this later).

In return, Russia gets a reliable political ally, and a country that is willing to host Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean – the refurbishment of the Tartus base is expected to be completed by 2012. The former gets Russia support in places like the UN, the latter is seen as critical to address weaknesses in naval capacity demonstrated during Russia’s brief 2008 war with Georgia.

Russia’s Arms Interests

Russia’s relationship with Syria, and particularly its military, goes back a long way – back to the Cold War, when Soviet influence usurped French influence.

Take a quick look at the Wikipedia page on the Syrian Navy, for example. Almost every ship you see listed is Russian made. The Syrian Air Force? Packed full of MiGs and Sukhoi jets.  The Syrian Army? About the only piece of equipment it owns that isn’t stamped ‘made in the USSR’ is its boots.

Historically, Syria has consistently been one of the Soviet and Russian arms industry’s biggest clients.  5,000 tanks, more than 500 aircraft, 41 naval vessels – that’s a lot of lucrative maintenance contracts.

And, of course, it’s not just about the business to be had replacing and upgrading  stock – Syria remains a major purchaser of Russian arms today. This RIA Novosti article from last week lists contracts worth $2.5 billion for 24 new fighters, air defence launchers and the upgrade of 1,000 Syrian tanks. And that’s nowhere near a complete list.

How does this drive Russia’s current policy?

Of course, all of this means nothing if it looks like Assad’s regime is on the way out. If that’s the case, then in order to preserve its position within Syria, Russia needs to start ingratiating itself with the opposition PDQ.  Otherwise work on Russia’s shiny new base in the Med is going to slow to a crawl and arms contracts, although they wouldn’t die out completely, are going to get much harder to negotiate.

My opinion, therefore, is that Russia has taken a cold, hard look at the current crisis in Syria, and has decided that, on the balance of probabilities, the Assad regime is going to survive. It has calculated that the internal opposition to Assad is too weak, and the external opposition to Assad is too divided and uncertain to intervene. And that, given its current isolation, the Syrian government will take any friend it can get.

Which ultimately means that, no matter how brutal Assad’s fight for survival is, if he comes out on top in the end, it will be worth it to Russia’s national and commercial interests.

Image reproduced with kind permission of crossed-flag-pins.com


  1. serene

    In my understanding, as a Syrian, the Russian politics towards Syria means: it’s totally OK for Russians to live off of Syrians’ blood, as long as their intrests are intact. In other words, there are no humane principles behind its policy although, the Russian government, and every government, is there to serve HUMANS and humans are valued because of their humanity not because they are creatures who breath, eat, and breed.
    What if we reverse the image, would it be OK?
    The Arabic spring has come to show the world that the human life and dignity, is truely the most valuable and constant principle that will ultimately rule, even after decades.

    I hope Russians get that before it’s too late,

  2. Mark

    The USA supplies nearly 100% of Israeli arms that are not domestically produced. Is the USA “living off of Israelis’ blood”? Is it “living off U.S. taxpayers’ blood”, since much of the money that flows from Israel to American arms manufacturers originated as foreign aid giveaways?

    Your utopian vision notwithstanding, take a look at how much interest the west has shown in Egyptian democracy since Mubarak fell. Take a look at the advancement of Egyptian democracy brought about by the yelling mobs, now that the west has turned its interest elsewhere.

    The Arab spring was always just a means to an end, designed to bring about a change in management.

  3. Andy

    @Sublime Oblivion – far better, perhaps, to have given NATO the entire banquet in the first place, and allowed them to do the job they wanted to do properly in the first place? Although, then, perhaps NATO didn’t really want the opportunity to do things properly…

    @Serene – just to be clear – I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with Russia’s policy. I’m just saying what it is.

    @Mark – yelling mobs are sexy, so the press is bound to cover them more than the dull backroom work of developing a new constitution. But then, maybe that’s work that should be mostly done slightly outside of the public eye?

  4. Mark

    Well, let’s just quickly recap how many times putting the military in charge of the country resulted in a blossoming of democratic freedoms.

    Ummm….I’m drawing a blank.

    The Egyptian protesters’ demands are said to have coalesced around an end to police brutality, implementing of constitutional reform and media oversight.


    Enter the new leader of Egypt…. Field Marshall Tantawi, head of the Egyptian Army. He might be sympathetic to demands for an end to brutality, constitutional reform and media oversight. But given his relative invisibility since assuming power and the somewhat crypttic comment that military rulers “will not tolerate religious strife, warning that they will strike with “an iron fist” against instigators”, I’m not optimistic.


    I don’t want to pour cold water over the protesters’ joy – let them have their moment, reality will settle in soon enough – but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this is exactly how they ended up with Mubarak, who segued into the leadership position from Chief of the Egyptian Air Force.


    And that ended well.

  5. Ferrin

    How can Russia talk about social & political reforms when it murdered 20 million of it’s own people to wipe out any possible opposition party or ideas. What a joke.

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