Why Russia won't cut Syria loose
May 17th, 2013
12:15 PM ET

Why Russia won't cut Syria loose

By Peter Fragiskatos, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Peter Fragiskatos teaches at Western University in London, Canada. You can follow him @pfragiskatos. The views expressed are his own.

Amidst the horror that continues to plague Syria, a glimmer of hope emerged last week as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced they will try to bring together the Syrian state and its opponents by convening an international peace conference.

In principle, negotiations are the right way to go. Had talks taken place earlier, the bloodshed, which has now claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, could have been vastly reduced. The only way it can be stopped is if there are some compromises, and this will only happen when the warring sides start talking in earnest. Yet reports that Russia is sending advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria are a reminder that Moscow's commitment to the process remains an unpredictable wild card.

In preparing for the discussions, a division of labor appears to have been set – the Americans are trying to persuade the rebels to take part, while Russia is pressing the al-Assad regime. And there are some promising signs on both fronts. According to Kerry, Salim Idriss – chief of staff for the main opposition Free Syrian Army – has expressed strong interest in negotiations, while reports suggest Lavrov has received a list of negotiators from the Syrian government.

But actually getting both sides to the negotiating table – and ensuring they are genuinely committed to the process – will be no easy task. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has demanded that the rebels disarm before any discussions occur, while rebel leaders are worried about losing credibility. After all, having promised revolution, rebel supporters, many of whom have lost loved ones, are unlikely to accept an outcome that could leave the regime – or something resembling it – in place.

There is, though, another factor standing in the way of a dialogue, one harder to grasp but no less important.

Russia is, by far, Syria’s largest arms supplier. Between 2007 and 2010, almost $5 billion was made by Russian firms selling weapons to Syria. This has continued since the conflict began more than two years ago, with Russia pledging to veto any effort by the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian state. What is more, roughly three million people are employed in the defense industry, according to an RIA Novosti report in 2009, which it noted represents about a fifth of the manufacturing jobs in Russia. With this in mind, a casual observer might be somewhat suspicious of whether Russia’s heart is really in Lavrov’s pledge to halt arms transfers.

More from CNN: Obama's no-win options in Syria

Still, there had been genuine cause for optimism that Russia really was serious about getting the two sides to the table. Late last week, reports emerged that the planned delivery of advanced surface-to-air missile systems, which are said to be made up of six launchers and close to 150 missiles, would not go ahead. The decision to halt the delivery reportedly followed concerns expressed by Israel to the United States about the issue. But the move, we have been offered a clue to Russian motives.

In the past, Russia has cancelled sales of arms and military hardware to the al-Assad regime in order to ease Tel Aviv’s concerns. The decision to do so could be interpreted as a desire to boost ties with a relatively stable and more reliable Middle Eastern state now that Syria and Iran, Russia’s other major ally in the region, are beset by problems.

In addition, Russia no doubt fears that radical Sunni elements of the Syrian opposition – the al-Nusra Front is a good example – might inspire Islamist rebels in its restive republic of Chechnya. This aligns its interests with Israel, where worries about what might come after al-Assad have guided Tel Aviv’s policy towards the rebellion against a state that has engaged in anti-Israel rhetoric and whose ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon have made it a threat. Israel’s recent bombing raid against Syrian targets underscores this point.

The problem for Israel is that Russia has generally resumed arming Syria each time Israeli concerns have eased, because Russia’s leadership still sees much to lose economically and strategically from cutting Syria loose, a reality borne out by the cruise missile news. Ultimately, Russia sees Syria as another test case for the West’s appetite for intervention, and views the danger of U.S. involvement as a direct threat to its own interests.

All this suggests that despite Moscow's talk of a conference next month, Russia and Syria will find a way to be friends again. Putin needs Israel, but he needs al-Assad more. For the Syrian people, this means that their misery will continue – and possibly intensify in the coming weeks and months.

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Topics: Israel • Russia • Syria

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soundoff (119 Responses)
  1. no your roll

    the syrian people of 85 percent back and want our goverment to stay in place the jews want us apart because then they will no longer have a threat how dumb are you people wake up fake syrian army given weapons and funded by zionest starting from mecca regime qatar turkey all pupets to isreal so state what ever your two cent minds want to state because these is the truth long live syria

    May 22, 2013 at 12:53 am | Reply
    • Ivan

      It's true. Saudi-Arabia and Turkey bend over to Israel. In fact, Israel's head Rabbinate awarded King Abdullah some medal just because of his support for Zionism.
      Israel fears nationalism which is why they are supporting Salafist jihadists.

      May 22, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Reply
  2. Alexander Argentina

    Terrorists Infiltration Attempt from Lebanon Foiled

    In another context, units of the armed forces foiled armed terrorist groups' infiltration attempts from Lebanon into Syria across several sites in al-Qseir countryside, inflecting heavy losses upon them.

    SANA reporter quoted a source in the province as saying that the armed forces confronted armed terrorist groups tried to infiltrate from Lebanon across al-Sarhanieh, Hit and Bwiet to the Northern neighborhood in al-Qseir city, killing scores of terrorists, injuring others and destroying their vehicles.

    Three Workers Martyred by Mortar Shells Fired in al-Mleiheh

    Three workers martyred and 24 others injured when mortar shells fired by terrorists targeted Wasim Company for ready-made clothes in al-Mlayha in Damascus Countryside.

    An official source told SANA reporter that the terrorist attack caused the martyrdom of 3 workers and the injury of 24 others and material damages in the company and the surrounding area.

    A medical source in Damascus Hospital said that 15 injured, some in critical conditions were admitted in the Hospital , while a source in al-Muwasat Hospital said that the bodies of 3 martyrs were admitted to the hospital and 9 injured were also hospitalized with various injuries.

    Car Loaded with 1 Ton of Explosives Destroyed in Harasta

    In another context, the Syrian Arab Army destroyed a car loaded with explosives on Harasta highway in Damascus Countryside and killed the terrorists in it.

    An official source told SANA reporter that the Mitsubishi car was loaded with 1 ton of explosives.

    May 22, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  3. Edward

    Don t trust CNN to tell the truth to the people never speak truth CNN

    May 22, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Reply
    • Ivan

      RT is more accurate.

      May 22, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Reply
  4. Ivan

    Assad is one of the few sane leaders in the Middle East.

    NATO is supporting Saudi-style theocratic movements, using Shari'ah law to hold power while America takes the oil.
    Russia and her allies have caught on to the pattern after the Libyan Civil War when NATO killed Gaddafi. Paid-opposition won't work anymore.

    ...and don't even think about Iran or Venezuela.

    May 22, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply
  5. Michael Ruzicho

    You can't mix weapons with peace you must talk like human beings to solve problems or differences. You must change yourself and be willing before expecting others to change or join in on peace.

    May 25, 2013 at 2:33 am | Reply
  6. YaValioCacaWates

    Putin & Assad seem to be so much alike., they would murder their own people to stay in power.

    June 6, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  7. Valentina Sherren

    Having read a number of these comments, I can't believe that I live in the same world as many of the commenters. I am well aware that we all are fed propaganda, upon which we base our viewpoints and beliefs. What worries me, though, is the vitriol that is so prevalent in most of the comments I have read – not only in this website but in others as well. Given the anger and, even hatred, that permeate the underlying beliefs that are revealed by the comments, it is not surprising that wars continue to be part of the human experience.

    June 8, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  8. voinaimir

    Not exactly an expert opinion – more like amateur regurgitation of common tropes.

    The real reason Russia backs Syria:

    Russia doesn't support the Assad regime. If the Syrians elected a new government, Russia would deal with them too. Russia plays real politic – plain and simple. They deal with the legal government, they don't intervene in internal affairs, they honour their contracts.

    The public stance Russia has taken on Syria has one primary purpose: it shows other countries Russia deals with that that it will stick to it's contractual commitments and not meddle in their affairs. That's going to lead to real money in Russia's pockets and improved diplomatic relationships – including with the revolutionary victors, whoever they may be.

    June 18, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Reply
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    August 1, 2013 at 6:44 am | Reply
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    December 9, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
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