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Why is Syria So Important to Russia and Putin?

- September 5, 2013

Russia Syrian Game

The following is a guest post from UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman.


As the White House rounds up support for a military strike against Syria, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his disapproval. What lies behind the Russian position? Why is Putin so seemingly attached to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad?

It is tempting to attribute Moscow’s resistance to US intervention to some kind of psychological hangup—say, wounded pride at Russia’s fallen status or an atavistic Cold War mentality. To former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, quoted by Peter Baker in the New York Times, Putin is “about lost power, lost empire, lost glory.” President Obama recently took to analyzing Putin’s “slouch.”

Yet, in fact, there’s a logic behind Putin’s position on Syria that is really not that hard to understand. It has more to do with realpolitik than psychology.

Some have pointed to Russia’s economic interests in Syria, but these are actually quite modest. Trade between the two countries is inconsequential. In 2011, Russian exports to Syria came to $1.93 billion, about 0.4 percent of the total. Imports from Syria were just $306 million. As of 2009, Russia had an estimated $19.4 billion of investments in the country, although that might have risen since then.

Syria matters slightly more for Russia’s weapons producers, who have excellent channels of communication with the Kremlin. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s estimates, Russian arms exports to Syria in the five years from 2008 to 2012 totaled about $1.1 billion (at 1990 prices) out of a worldwide total of $35.2 billion. Contracts for future supplies come to several billion dollars. Russian companies would also like to develop Syria’s oil fields. Still, all considered, Moscow’s economic stake in the country is relatively small.

Nor does Putin’s position have much to do with the naval station at Tartus that Syria has provided Russia for the past 40 years. Of course, Moscow would like to keep this last remaining naval foothold in the Mediterranean, and it has planned for some years to refurbish the port. But at present facilities there are very limited. The station can accommodate no more than four medium sized ships at once.

Putin’s real motivation in opposing US involvement in Syria’s civil war is simple: he strongly objects to US policies of regime change, especially when backed up by military force. There are two main reasons. First, he is intensely aware that many in Washington would like to see his regime changed. Although overthrowing Putin is not an objective of US policy, he resists any extension of the practice.

The second reason is that he sees past episodes of US-sponsored regime change—in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya—as having replaced stable, albeit sometimes unattractive, dictatorships with dangerous chaos. In the choice between stable authoritarian strongmen and unstable partial democracies, riven by sectarian conflicts, he chooses the former. Instability in the Muslim world—which extends to Russia’s North Caucasus and Volga republics as well as it’s Central Asian “soft underbelly”—is something policymakers in Moscow fear.

Finally, Putin is not satisfied by the various reassurances that Washington has given in this case. This has less to do with Cold War legacies of distrust than with the historical record. Saying the US strike will be “limited” merely recalls the 2011 “limited” Western intervention in Libya, which did not stop until Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had been overthrown and killed. Putin is also cynical about a US operation to punish Assad for using chemical weapons given that the US continued to support Saddam Hussein after that dictator used poison gas to murder Kurdish Iraqis in 1988.

In short, Putin sees a US foreign policy that is aimed more at securing influence around the globe and overthrowing adversaries than at enforcing international norms. Previous US interventions in the Middle East have, in his view, increased instability and the danger of sectarian conflict spreading across borders. Given this, he considers US military operations around the globe as not in his—or Russia’s—interest. Although we might not like this position, it is understandable.


Photo Credit: The World Tribune