Why Russia Supports Syria

Amid the chorus of international condemnation for Bashar Al-Assad, Russia’s disapproval has been decidedly tepid. In the face of recent atrocities like the massacre in Houla, Putin has toned down his support for Assad, suggesting a diplomatic solution, such as the Annan plan, as a way of resolving the crisis. Also, Russia has steadfastly opposed UN sanctions against Syria, and Russian media outlets are even more open in their support for Syria’s government. This lack of opposition to Assad on Russia’s part is not surprising, since Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Middle East, and also an important trade partner. These political and economic considerations may that if seem like unjustifiable reasons to support a tyrannous regime, but it is worth considering the United States’ support for Bahrain during the recent protests, and its relationship with other Middle East countries.
One similarity between the two cases of Syria and Bahrain, is the fact that the U.S. has a major and strategically important naval base in Bahrain, just as Russia has at Tartus in Syria, and in the Obama Administration treated Bahrain’s governments gently, just as Russia is handling the Assad government now. This may seem cynical and self-serving, but it’s understandable. Both the U.S. and Russia have a limited number of allies in the region. As previously mentioned, Syria is Russia’s only significant ally in the Middle East. Furthermore, there is a massive amount of expense and negotiation involved in setting up before naval base, so that and no country is likely to discard one lightly. Also, of the country did decide to censure or sanction a country hosting one of its naval bases, and it will have to be sure to evacuate all of its troops and equipment before taking any unfriendly action, which would be a major logistical undertaking, and possibly lead to violence.
Syria is also a major Russian trading partner. Russia exported $1.1 billion worth of goods to Syria in 2010, and it sold Syria $4.7 billion in arms from 2007 to 2010. Also in 2010, the Russian energy firm Tatneft began a joint program with the Syrian state oil company to drill exploratory oil wells near the Syria-Iraq border. If Russia supported the U.N. sanctions on Syria, it would lose access to all of these economic resources. The United States also has important economic partners in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, and it is often been criticized by human rights groups for not speaking out more forcefully about the inequalities and injustices of Saudi society; a reticence that usually attributed to reluctance to anger a major source of oil.
While the economic and strategic factors are significant, probably the single most important reason that Russia has been supporting Syria is to expand its global influence. As long as Russia opposes you and sanctions against Syria, and remain one of two major players (with China) on that side of the issue, and Seri and opposition leaders and the U.S. and European diplomats will try to court and persuade Moscow, granting various concessions along the way. If it supported sanctions, on the other hand, lesser would be only one of a (probably U.S. led) coalition. If Russia backs down too quickly now from its support for Assad, it will look like it is battling to the pressure brought by the U.S. and its allies, which would be a blow to the image it is trying to create of Russia as an international power player. Of course, one could argue that a lack of wholehearted condemnation of the brutal Syrian regime does more damage to Russia’s image than any perceived weakness.
This is when the analogy between Russia and the United States breaks down. Although the U.S. has supported and continues to support governments with questionable human rights records, thus far it has backed away from former allies before their human rights abuses reached the egregious level that they have in Syria. Whether this is because that the United States greater concern with human rights or their concern with the reputation as a champion of human rights, this behavior is markedly from that Russia has displayed in Syria.