Syria crisis: Why is Russia defending Bashar al-Assad?

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad (10 Jan 2012)
Image caption The Kremlin is against the call for President Assad to step down

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has at least one ally on the UN Security Council: Russia, an ally adamant in its opposition to sanctions against Damascus.

Many analysts believe this stance brings little benefit to Russia, and is more a product of domestic considerations and psychological complexes of the Kremlin's ruling elite.

Last October, Russia and China used their vetoes to stop a UN resolution that condemned the government of Mr Assad for the suppression of anti-government protests.

Now, Moscow has once again threatened to wield its veto, demanding changes to the latest text.

While Moscow does not wholly support the actions of the Syrian government, it opposes sanctions and has repeatedly stressed its opposition to even the slightest hint of intervention along the lines of that in Libya.

The Kremlin is also against the call for President Assad's resignation, and insists that the blame for the crisis and thousands of civilian deaths cannot be attributed to the Syrian authorities alone.

"We're not ecstatic about Mr Assad, who always makes promises and does not keep his word, but we are convinced that Assad and Syrian society can talk to each other, and the political dialogue has not been exhausted," the Deputy Chairman of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev, told the BBC.

Arms sales

The draft resolution does not mention any possible military action against Syria.

But Russia wants to delete from it a call for Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and a proposal to ban the sale of arms to Syria. Russia is a key weapons supplier for Damascus.

Image caption Protesters in Homs step on an image of Russian PM Vladimir Putin

Moscow's most desirable outcome would appear to be saving President Assad, who would then implement some reforms.

On Monday Russia's foreign ministry once again called for talks between the Syrian authorities and the opposition and suggested Moscow as a venue. While Russia insists on talks "without preconditions", the Syrian opposition demands a ceasefire and an end to repression by government forces.

Of particular concern for the West is the continuing delivery of Russian arms. According to some estimates, some 10% of Russia's global arms sales go to Syria, with current contracts estimated to be worth $1.5bn (£950m).

Moscow argues that is has not signed up to Western sanctions and has contracts with Damascus which must be honoured.

'Losing allies'

Western observers generally see the situation in terms of geopolitical pragmatism: Syria is Russia's long-time ally in the Middle East, and Russia maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.

But Russia's pragmatism is now being called into question.

Over the past 15 years the same scenario has been played out three times in different countries.

Although with some reservations, Moscow supported first Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, then Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and more recently Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, even though it had no means to translate that support into action, and even though the Kremlin did not want seriously to undermine its relations with the US and Europe.

The West achieved its aims in each case, while Russia appeared impotent and suffered political and economic losses.

"Russia is constantly losing allies. With the exception of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Venezuela, there are practically no countries that may be called our friends," political analyst Alexei Vorobyov told the BBC.

So why are the Kremlin and foreign ministry following the same path again?

"Although Putin likes the European way, he sees many parallels between himself and Assad," says the former head of Russia's National Strategy Institute, Stanislav Belkovsky. "It is a question of personal sympathy, and a feeling of possibly sharing the same fate."

Some observers, especially from the opposition camp, are keen to suggest that Putin is mindful of the fate of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, fearing that he might be next. But others find such parallels too far-fetched. It is difficult to imagine a civil war or military intervention in a nuclear state like Russia.

Alexei Vorobyov has no doubt that the Kremlin's foreign policy is largely addressed to a domestic audience.

"It's not a struggle for Syria or Iran, it is a struggle against the West. Of course, it is just a pretend struggle. But it sends a simple and clear message to the population - we are strong, we are not afraid of anybody."

Among those who shape Russian foreign policy, there is a widespread belief that if Moscow sticks to its guns it will eventually gain a strategic advantage.

They reason that sooner or later the West will stumble, either because of the economic crisis, or for some other reason. In these circumstances, being seen as a leader of the camp rejecting Western values could bring great dividends.

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