Russia Warns Syria Resolution “Path to Civil War”

Nearly everyone has deserted Bashar Assad but Russia. Why is the Kremlin standing by his side?

A senior Russian diplomat on Tuesday warned that if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were forced to resign, his country would surely descent into chaos.

Encouraged by the Arab League, which withdrew its monitors from Syria last week as the regime continued to deploy force against the opposition, the United Nations Security Council considered a resolution that urged President Assad to step down on Tuesday.

Ahead of the vote, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said, “Pushing this resolution is a path to civil war.” The country has threatened to use its veto power to prevent the resolution from being enacted.

Demonstrations in Syria have been subject to brutal crackdowns for almost a year. Thousands are estimated to have died in confrontations between protesters and Assad’s security forces since the revolt started in March 2011. Part of the opposition has since banded together in militias while a government in waiting sits in Istanbul.

Despite international pressure, Damascus has shown no sign of relenting.

The Arab League suspended Syria as a member in November. Qatar has called for an armed intervention. Turkey, which maintained amicable ties with the Ba’athist regime before the uprising, said it had “lost confidence” in President Assad’s willingness to reform. The Turkish foreign minister just last week said that his country was “ready to do everything for the Syrian people” although he stopped short of endorsing calls for military action. Even Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the West, has severed ties with Damascus.

Besides Iran, a stalwart Syrian ally, only Russia has continued to stand by Assad’s side. The two countries have been close since the Cold War.

Syria is still a top buyer of Russian military hardware. In 2010, it received 6 percent of Russian arms sales. Contracts for future deliveries are worth up to $4 billion. Syria has also hosted a Russian naval base in the city of Tartus on the Mediterranean since 1971. The facilities are partly derelict. Of three floating docks, one is known to be operational although renovations started in 2009.

In the strongest show of support for the Assad regime yet, the Kremlin anchored its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the flagship of the Russian navy, off the port of Tartus earlier this month.

Russia is also invested in Syrian natural gas extraction. The Stroitransgaz company is building a gas processing plant in central Syria and involved in technical support for the expansion of the Arab Gas Pipeline which exports Egyptian gas to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The energy company Tatneft plans to spend $12 million on drilling exploratory wells near the Iraqi border and is engaged in contracts with the Syrian national oil company.

The largest oil producer and second largest oil exporter in the world, Russia hardly depends on Middle Eastern states like Syria. Its loyalty to Assad and his government may be informed more by a concern of strengthening the Sunni axis in the region, led by Saudi Arabia and allied to the West, as well as the fear that successful rebellion in Syria could embolden Islamic insurgents in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

In supporting Assad, Moscow may seek to dissuade dissident groups in its outer provinces and former satellite states from imitating the “Arab Spring” and crush Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s hopes of establishing an Eurasian Union under Russian leadership before it has probably taken off.

The deep warm-water port of Tartus is also a strategic asset that is coveted by Russia. It may not be as relevant to Russia’s ability to project power as during Soviet times, especially as the country’s emphasis shifts to the Arctic region, but a presumably Islamist regime, in league with the Turks, would surely expel the Russians from their one naval base that isn’t either frozen during part of the year or inaccessible, as in the Black Sea, if NATO powers erected a blockade of the Dardanelles.