Several pundits have recently attempted to answer the burning question in many American’s minds: Why is Russia backing Syria? First off, let’s explore a sample of those opinions. An article on 9/12/13 by NBC News cites Russia’s Naval base in Tartus and the ongoing arms trade as two major reasons. Both of those are great clues but neither suffices as a reason for the Russian Federation to back the ruthless and criminal government in the face of a weak threat to act on a vowed red line by an old but resilient foe. Another expert’s breakdown proposed that Russia and Putin has a deep concern over stability in the region that could spread to their own country. That analysis follows closely Putin’s recent statements on the ordeal and does not fully explain the bond. The answer is much more simplistic. History.
During the Cold War, Russia constructed a naval base in the Syrian port, Tartus. This was the result of a 1971 agreement with the tumultuous country. Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, was a major factor in this agreement happening. Prior to Hafez’s rule in 1970, the country was plagued with constant leadership change. Coup after coup. Once this stability was found, Hafez ruled for thirty years prior to his death and subsequent son’s succession. Russia understands something we have failed to grasp as of late…a stable dictator is easier to deal with than an unstable and tumultuous nation, see Egypt. Especially a nation that your country has done business with for over 40 years.
Military sales from Russia are pretty insignificant. Syria is Russia’s seventh greatest military “customer”. They could do without Syria’s arms business. There is something to be said about Russia losing more and more military business in the region (see Iran for example) but even factoring that in, the loss of the current contracts would not cripple the Federation. These armament contracts are in the neighborhood of $4-$5 billion. Current non-military contracts are currently around $20 billion. “Private sector” businesses stand to lose more than the government if al-Assad is unseated and war breaks out. That would not be popular in Russia’s homeland. Another consideration is Russia would ultimately be forced between supporting a longtime ally and pushing back against any US efforts, regardless of how limited. Cold War 2.0? As arrogant as Putin is, he is not rooting to revisit that saga. Definitely not at this time.
Simply stated, Russia-Syrian relations have been in motion for 40+ years. Surely our skilled president was thinking of that when he impetuously set our “red line” a year ago.