May 28, 2016

Assad’s Russian Lifeline


The port of Oktyabrsk is situated on the left bank of the Bug River, 58 km. north of the entry to the Black Sea. Close to the city of Nikolayev, this anonymous Ukrainian port could not seem further from the strife-torn Middle East.

Yet in the last year, Oktyabrsk has played a key role in the international structure that enables the survival of the Assad dictatorship in Syria. It is the main point from which ships bearing the Russian arms that underwrite the Assad regime’s survival set off undisturbed on their journey to the Syrian coast.

Chartered by the state-owned Russian arms corporation Rosoboronexport, the ships make their way from Oktyabrsk to the Black Sea. They cross the Bosphorous Straits to Limassol in Cyprus and continue to the Russian deep sea port in Tartous, Syria. These shipments form a vital node in Moscow’s tireless effort to prevent revolution in Syria.

They have received insufficient international attention.

If Syria constitutes, as some believe, the central linchpin to understanding events in the Middle East, then the signs are not positive. The Western preference for disengagement from the Mideast mess is not being mirrored by non-Western powers. Rather, as the determined and efficient arms line to Assad shows, Moscow’s Syria policy combines clear goals with a brutal effectiveness in their pursuit.

Why is Russia so determined to preserve Assad’s rule? The first reason is economic. As Russia returned to international prominence over the last decade, arms exports to Syria increased exponentially. Between 2007 and 2011, imports from Russia accounted for 78 percent of all Syrian arms imports, according to a recent report by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The second-largest supplier of arms to Assad in the 2007 to 2011 period was Belarus, which accounted for 17% of Syrian imports. The isolated Lukashenka regime in Minsk does not pursue an independent policy in terms of arms supplying. Rather, it sells Russian arms systems in coordination with – and probably under the direction of – its Russian patrons.

So put the figures together and you have 95% of Syrian arms imports arriving from Russia or its satellites. It doesn’t end there. The remaining 5% of arms imports, says SIPRI, come from Iran. But the Iranians, too, are largely providing Syria with Russian arms systems.

Moscow’s economic interests in Syria are not limited to the sphere of arms exports. Russian companies are heavily engaged in infrastructure projects and oil and gas exploration.

Total investment in Syria amounted to $19.4 billion in 2009.

The second reason Russia is invested in Assad’s reign is strategic. The naval base at Tartous gives the Russian Navy the capability to operate in the Mediterranean and thus to reach the Red Sea via the Suez Canal, and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar, in reduced time.

The Russians also have an interest in maintaining a troublesome client in the Levant in order to act as a potential tool of disruption and political pressure against the West in its own backyard. Moscow sees itself as threatened by NATO expansion eastwards.

It is useful to have a well-placed client whose capacity for trouble-making might act as a deterrent to Western schemes.

This element, which dovetails perfectly with the Assad regime’s well-known practice of creating problems and then offering its services to help solve them (at a price), dates back to the period of the Cold War.

More nebulously, Russia fears the spread of Islamism to the North Caucasus and Central Asia, and perhaps also the spread of the belief that dictators are fallible further west of Russia itself.

Finally, Russian support for Assad produces a self-evident reason for doubling down on itself: namely, the fact that the opposition to Assad is well aware who is keeping him afloat, and is keeping accounts. As a Free Syrian Army officer in Antakya told this reporter, a post-Assad Syria would “neither depend on, nor have relations with, nor take weapons from Russia.”

How important are the Russian weapons to the dictator’s survival? They constitute a single but vital component in the determined international coalition gathered behind Bashar Assad. The Iranian Quds Force and Hezbollah are there on the ground, providing assistance and engaging where relevant in direct combat. Russia and China are blocking any moves for real action against the regime by way of the UN.

Were the Russian lifeline to be removed, perhaps Iran, China or North Korea might try to make up the difference. But as of now, it is Russia which is pumping the iron lifeblood into the veins of the regime.

Against this, the Free Syrian Army is still running its meager arms smuggling operations across the mountains from Turkey and Lebanon, backed by myriad and confused channels of Sunni Islamist, Qatari and Saudi money. The demonstrators are still going out to be killed in Deraa, Homs, Idlib and Hama.

The West, meanwhile, is still backing the stillborn Annan peace plan.

The lost blue-bereted UN observers are floating around those parts of Syria they are permitted to enter.

The Obama administration may well still be seeking to convince Russia of the need to make Assad step aside. Washington correctly assesses that only Moscow might have the power to achieve this. The problem is that Russia shows no interest in assisting the US.

Instead, it is backing its client to the end. In so doing, Moscow is demonstrating that it well understands the harsh and Hobbesian nature of patron-client relations in the Middle East. If the dictator survives, Moscow and Tehran’s triumph will be well-noted by regional elites.

As will the West’s hapless flailing.

Day by day, the killings and the chaos in Syria are continuing. Day by day, the guns and ammunition are being loaded aboard at the quiet port of Oktyabrsk in southern Ukraine. And day by day, Russia is building political and strategic capital in the traditional way – through strong will, clear direction, and the backing of clients – in the face of a Western policy in utter disarray.

About Jonathan Spyer

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is Director of the Rubin Center (formerly the GLORIA Center), IDC Herzliya, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master’s Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His reporting on the war in Syria and Iraq has been published in a number of major news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Times, Weekly Standard and many others. His blog can be followed at: http://jonathanspyer.com/.