Daily Israel Report

Russia Banking on Assad

Despite months of unrest in Syria and int'l condemnation of the regime's brutal crackdown, Russia is banking on Assad's survival.
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 9/22/2011, 12:12 AM

Even as US President Barack Obama laid down the gauntlet and called for world consensus for sanctions on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations, Moscow is banking on Assad's survival.

Assad's brutal crackdown on anti-regime protesters has left more than 2,600 civilians dead and brought sharp disapprobation from both the West and Damascus' traditional Arab allies.

But despite several rounds of sanctions from the Obama administration and its European allies, true isolation for Assad has been consistently blocked by America's traditional rival Russia.

For officials in Moscow, who compete with Washington in the global arms market, and use arms sales as a lever for strategic influence, there are billions of dollars in contracts on the line.

According to The Moscow Times, Russian investments in Syria in 2009 were valued at $19.4 billion, mainly in arms deals, infrastructure development, energy and tourism. Russian exports in 2010 totaled $1.1 billion.

Syria is also home to Russia's only warm water port outside the Black Sea. In Russian hands since 1971, the base near Tartous is considered strategically critical by the Russian Navy, who plan to refurbish the installation in 2012.

With so much riding on Assad, Moscow believes he may yet weather the storm, which means protecting a status quo wherein the Kremlin's coffers remain full. And, mistrust of populism and opposition to foreign intervention are long-ingrained political mores in Russia.

Assad's intelligence services and core military units remain a bastion of pro-regime support, according to The Economist, and his constantly shifting blitzkrieg-style crackdown has left an innately discordant and fractious protest movement reeling from successive body blows.

Moscow has no reason to assume, absent universal sanctions or a Libya-style NATO intervention in Syria, that Assad won't remain in power.

“I think the country’s leaders have managed to turn the tide against the uprising," Ilyas Umakhanov, deputy chairman of the Russian Federation Council and head of a delegation currently in Syria, told AFP on Monday.

Russia does not share Obama's rose-colored-glasses assessment of the Arab Spring, or his belief that revolutions will lead to democracy followed by peaceful prosperity. Instead, classic Russian pessimism has led Moscow to believe the Arab Spring is destined for instability and bloodletting

"If the Syrian government is unable to hold on to power, there is a high probability that radicals and representatives of terrorist organizations will become entrenched,” Ilya Rogachyov, a top official in the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Reuters last Week.

Billions of dollars in investments and the strategic naval facility in Tartous would all be jeopardized if Assad is overthrown, or the country collapses into sectarian chaos.

Moscow, with $10 billion in Qaddafi-era contracts on nebulous ground with the interim rebel government in Tripoli, doesn't want to weather another Feliniesque NATO-led revolution in Damascus.