Syrian-Russian relations: The reasons of Russia’s current foreign policy in Syria

By Moncef Fellah

2011 marks the start of the protests in Syria. The first waves of demonstrations were located in Damascus and in the south of the country, in the Deraa region, but very quickly, these demonstrations expanded in other parts of the country. In a short period of time, protests became an armed conflict with different factions having different political interests and supported by different regional and global powers.

At the same time, the Russian Federation, disappointed by the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, has benefited from the 2008 military reforms, which gave a stronger power for the country in reaching its military aspirations and in counterweighting US decreasing leadership in the Middle East.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the Russian federation has showed a consistent support to the Syrian President by providing a humanitarian, political and more importantly a military assistance. This allowed the Syrian army and its allies to take major parts of the Syrian soil. Today, most of the biggest Syrian cities are controlled by the Syrian army and its allies.

The goal of this paper is to focus on the military reasons of the Syrian-Russian alliance. I will focus on the roots of this alliance as well as the strategic reasons that explain the current Russian foreign policy in Syria.

1/ The historical links between Syria and Russia:

At the end of the 1950’s, Syria became a close partner to the Eastern bloc. In the 1960’s, the emergence and the takeover of the Baath Party allowed the Soviet Union to solidify its influence. Thus, military support increased, trade between the two countries boomed and the Soviet Union assisted the Syrian authorities in its nationalization projects (Lund-2019). The country was built on the Soviet model, and it became more and more dependent on the USSR. It represented one of the most important partners for Moscow in the Middle East, and it became a vital one when the Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat “defected” to the American camp in 1972. Syria became the de facto main Soviet ally in the Middle East and held that position until 1991.

From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Moscow maintained close relations with Damascus, which was ruled from 1970 until 2000 by Hafez al-Assad. Hafez al Assad had, from the beginning of his presidency a proUSSR position. In 1980, the relationship between the two countries became even closer when Moscow and Damascus signed a treaty that provided for consultation in case of a threat to peace and for military cooperation (Trenin-2013).

Since the 1970’s, Syria represents a crucial partner in terms of weapon exports. Moreover, the country hosted up to 6,000 Soviet military advisers and technicians as well as civilian personnel and dependents. The collaboration between the two countries also included the economy and education (Trenin-2013), and even after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some military advisers, continued to offer their services to the Syrian government.

It is important to note that were a few disputes between the two countries. For example, when the Syrian army intervened in the Lebanese Civil war or in 1991 when Moscow decided to restore diplomatic relations with Israel (a country that was and that is still considered as an “enemy state” by Syria). However, these disputes did not impact significantly on the long-term relations between the two countries. Syria received generous terms of credit and kept receiving military equipment even with an increasing debt. A weak Soviet Union would automatically mean a weak Syria. Consequently, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the weakening of the Russian Federation in the 1990’s created a situation of economic chaos in Syria. However, even in this situation, Moscow kept having a policy that would maintain its influence in the country. It is an interesting point since it was not the case for a number of former strong partners of the Soviet Union.

Thus, it is necessary to explain the strategic importance of Syria for Russia. The loyalty of the Russian Federation towards the Syrian government is not only a message for its allies, but also a way for the country to defend its interests in the region.

2/ The strategic importance of the Syrian territory

Historically, the Syrian territory has always been a coveted land. It was conquered by the Assyrians in 900- 726 BC, then by the Babylonian Empire in 612 BC. A few times later, Cyrus II, founder of the Persian Empire conquered Babylonia, which made Syria under its control. In 301 BC, it was Alexander the Great’s turn to take control of the territory (Poutrel-2020).

Centuries later, the Arabs took control of this region, before getting conquered by the Turkish Empire in the 16th century (without talking about the Mameluke conquests). The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 and the San Remo conference recognized France’s mandate in Syria, a mandate that ended in 1946.

Today, the Syrian territory is still a coveted land. The same regional powers as in the previous centuries try to extend their influence in this country (for example Turkey and Iran), other countries in the region and major global powers try to have this country under their sphere of influence.

Regarding Russia, one of the strategic reasons of its support to the Syrian government is the fact that its only naval base in the Mediterranean is in Syria, with the Tartus base. Indeed, Tartus, a Syrian port that was used by the Soviet Navy’s Fifth Mediterranean Squadron during the Cold War, became Russia’s only naval resupply facility outside the former Soviet Union. The importance of this base increased gradually. In fact, in the beginning, this logistic center was only helping the Soviet naval group with repairs and supplies. For a long time, this base consisted of only a few floating berths, outbuildings, and a garrison for fifty people.

In the mid-1980s, Tartus was upgraded to become the 720th Logistics Support Point for the Soviet Navy (Synovitz-2012). The end of the Soviet Union was catastrophic for the Navy. The Russian Navy left a considerable number of its bases, including its ports in the Baltic States. It also lost Caspian Sea ports that became property of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Finally, it lost its Yemen and Vietnam bases. This situation became even worse when the Russian Federation could not afford to fully maintain the soviet inherited navy. However, after a modernization of its military (including the navy), Russia is now expanding its presence throughout its naval ports. In fact, since its direct intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015, Russian activity in the Mediterranean became all-time high since the 5th Operational Squadron disbandment in 1992 (Research and Information Center-2020).

Over the past six years, more than 80% of all cargoes for the Russian grouping have been delivered to Tartus. Another fact that shows the importance of the Tartus base for Russia is the fact that under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey has the right to close off Turkish straits that connect the Black and the Mediterranean Sea (Chauhan-2020). Russia is therefore geographically locked, and its access to the Mediterranean depends on Turkey and other Black Sea states. Tartus is consequently an important foothold to the Eastern Mediterranean for the Russian Federation.

The case is similar regarding the Khmeimim Airbase which is operated by Russia since September 2015. The base of Khmeimim is the only Russian airbase in the Middle East, which explains why it is so important for this country. These two bases allow Russia to intervene not only in Syria but also potentially in other countries of the region and the Mediterranean. Consequently, it gives to Moscow a real weight militarily and diplomatically in the Middle East.

3/ Preserving its national security

The Kremlin’s approach to the region has depended to a certain degree on Russia’s overall relations with the West, which means that any negative relations could reflect on Russian position in the Eastern Mediterranean (Kortounov-2021). In recent years, the different steps of NATO’s expansion to the East were very negatively perceived by the Russian Federation.

The country considers that NATO presence at its borders as a direct threat to its national security, and the direct support of Washington for antigovernment uprisings and regime changes around Russia’s periphery; as well as the assistance to opposition movements and parties inside Russia has only reinforced this position. Thus, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that supporting its allies, including Syria would be considered as vital for Russia’s national security.

Moscow sees the Arab Spring as an Islamist revolution dominated by extremists (Carnegie Europe-2013). It fears the Syrian conflict will become more radicalized and spread further. Russia doesn’t want to have a Libyan scenario in the Syrian territory, since it has much more interests in this country, and at the same time, unlike Libya, Syria is much closer to Russia’s borders. Moreover, a number of Russian citizens have fought in the ranks of terrorist organizations in Syria.

It is estimated that there were about 4000 Russian nationals fighting in the ranks of the militants (Numbers of 2017) (Hauer-2018). The largest group of these fighters are from Dagestan. It is estimated that at least 1100 Dagestanis were fighting in the ranks of ISIS, and 600 fighters were from Chechnya (and 2400 Chechens traveling from diasporas in Europe) (Hauer-2018). It is also believed that 100 Ingush have entered Syria as militants, and approximately 175 from the republic of Kabardino Balkaria (Dzyuban-2017). Consequently, eliminating these threats in the Syrian soil is an opportunity to eliminate direct threats to its national security.

The Russian Federation sees negatively regime change policies. There should be no “mission creep” into outright involvement in a local civil war. “We are not in the business of regime change”. These are the words from Sergey Lavrov (Trenin-2013). Russia considers ‘order and stability’ as the most important values and indispensable sources of regime legitimacy (Kortunov-2021), and it has traditionally been sceptic when it comes to new Islamist regimes, whether it was regarding Egypt (between 2012 and 2013) or in Libya (where it has supported Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who positioned himself as a committed opponent of Islamism).

Furthermore, the Syrian crisis evolved very differently from the Libyan crisis. In Libya, the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, which began in February 2011, received support from the international community. In March 2011, the UN Security Council passed resolutions 1971 and 1973 imposing a no-fly zone over the country in order to protect civilians (with the Russian abstention). It also allowed a NATO intervention in order to eliminate the “threats to civilians”, which led to the violent end of Gaddafi’s rule. Moscow considers that the resolution 1973 was violated since its purpose was to protect civilian populations and not to overthrow the Libyan government. Today, Libya is a failed state, and a stronghold of transnational terrorist organizations, and with an instability that have repercussions on neighboring countries in North Africa, the Sahel, and the Mediterranean region in general. Moscow negatively saw the outcome of the Libyan intervention, and it played a considerable role in its position in the Syrian crisis, where Moscow objected every step that could have led to a no-fly zone in the Syrian territory.

At the same time, Russia has significantly improved its military capabilities, which helps the country achieve military successes in its interventions. Many reforms were implemented since the Georgian War. A military reform and a modernization program were launched in 2008, combined with significant increases in defense spending over the past several years (Sokolsky-2017). This has participated in improving the capabilities of Russia’s armed forces. The figure below shows Russia’s military expenditures since 2010.

Figure: Russia’s military spending since 2010 in Billions of dollars (Source: Stockholm Peace Research Institute)

In terms of military expenditures, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it increased by 30% in real terms between 2010 and 2019 and by 175% between 2000 and 2019. It decreased between 2016 and 2018, before rising another time in 2019. Following the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine in 2014, and the direct intervention of the Russian federation in Syria in 2015, defense expenditures have significantly increased from 2014 to 2016. It slowly reduced between 2017 and 2018 before increasing in 2019. The results are similar when it comes to miliary expenditures per percentage of GDP (as shown in the figure below). In 2008, military spendings represented less than 3.5% and it increased by more than 2%, reaching 5.4% in 2016. The numbers decreased between 2016 and 2018 before rising again between 2019 and 2020.

To conclude, different reasons influence the current Russian foreign policy in the Syrian territory. Russia has considerable interests in Syria since it represents its foothold in the Middle East and a way to increase its influence in the region. Syria is a historic ally of the Russian Federation, and losing this ally would be a strategic mistake. The intervention is the first direct military intervention outside a former USSR republic since the Cold War, it was facilitated by the improvement of the military capabilities of the country since the beginning of the 2000’s, which helped in achieving a successful military intervention. Militarily, the intervention solidifies Russia’s presence in the Syrian soil and in the region, and diplomatically it allows the country to have a stronger international role, and a solid position in the negotiation process. The Astana platform is the perfect example showing that, since the platform allowed the country to put at the same table of negotiations active regional actors in the conflict, Turkey, Iran, and itself. It also managed to maintain constructive relations with other opposite sides involved in the conflict, for example, the Saudis, Kurds, the UAE and Qatar. Furthermore, the NATO expansion towards the Russian borders, with the inclusion of former Warsaw Pact countries is considered by the Russian authorities as a threat to its national security, and defending its allies is a way of defending itself.

Russia’s military success in Syria was helped by major military reforms implemented since the Georgian War. These reforms helped improve military capabilities and efficiency. Today, we can also see an increased engagement of private military companies, which also shows that the country is diversifying its way of operating. The intervention in Syria was also an opportunity to make some parts of its army gain experience, especially with the Military Police which was sent in different parts of the Syrian territory.

Moncef Fellah has worked for various consulting companies and at the United Nations. He has participated in projects located in different countries. He has an international personal and professional experience, as he lived in more than five countries, and he speaks four languages fluently. He is specialized in the Eastern European region, and decided to focus on this area during his Masters degree at the University of Montreal. His main research interests include the relations between Russia and the West and Russian foreign policy. Moncef had the opportunity to study and to work in a couple of Central and Eastern European countries, and has notions of Russian language.

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