Mary E. Stonaker: Russia refuses to intervene in Syria


Refusal to intervene in the Syrian crisis may seem puzzling to outsiders who have heard stories of refugees as well as government-sponsored brutality.

President Bashar Al Assad’s speech this week, puzzling at best, blamed foreign conspirators and rebel groups for prompting citizens to ask for basic representative rights, and then said he would lead reform in the nation. Protestors are asking for a change in the representative powers of the people – a dictator cannot lead the reform unless he is leading his supporters out of Damascus.

Is Russia buying this contradictory official line, or is Syria’s geostrategic location blurring the eyes of Russians to the atrocities being committed by the Syrian government? Russia has refused to vote for a UN resolution condemning Syrian violence against its protestors. While the UN resolution is not calling for an intervention, it is interesting to discuss the foreign intervention in the region, the possibility of it in Syria, and why Russia wants to stay on Mr. Assad’s good side.

The right of foreign powers, including the UN, to intervene in domestic conflicts has long been debated.

Highlighting this debate is a concurrent discussion over the rights of NATO-led forces to intervene in Libya.

Earlier this week we saw the inadvertent missile attack on civilians in Libya change a wave of opinion against NATO-led forces. Mistakes such as these are highly costly, not only in terms of lost lives but also momentum against Mr. Qaddafi. This raises the question, should non-Libyans be concerned with the momentum against the colonel?

People around the world are condemning the brutality with which Mr. Qaddafi is opposing the will of his people and yet the argument for foreign intervention is still quite impassioned.

Can, or should, the world stand by and watch a dictator decimate a population of human beings? This is an essential debate within the policy world as individual nations weigh their own interests with a sense of moral responsibility.

Focusing again on why Russia refuses to condemn Syria, there are many factors to consider – Syria’s prime geostrategic location being number one.

Despite possessing negligible natural gas and oil reserves, Syria possesses precious open-sea access with a sizeable Mediterranean coastline. Russia needs warm water ports for its navy, and as many of them as they can acquire. Over the past decade, Russia has announced and reiterated its intention to return to Soviet-era maritime presence. Syria and the Soviet Union enjoyed strong ties during the Cold War-era.

In 2010, the Russian Navy announced that warships would be permanently stationed out of the once sleepy Syrian port town of Tartous. Given Russia’s own geographical location – it is land-locked except for a coastline that is frozen most of the year - the importance of this naval base to the Russians cannot be underestimated.

The line of thinking in the minds of Russian diplomats at the moment probably goes a little something like this: Assad is currently a powerful, though challenged, brutal dictator. If we vote against him in the UN, and he somehow remains in power, we will lose our precious Mediterranean port. Better to sit this one out.

Other factors Russia is considering include the massive arms deals with nations of North Africa and the Middle East. Syria has a significant arms deal with Russia, though Moscow maintains that they only sell weapons to be used in a defensive manner.

To facilitate and encourage arms orders from both Syria and Lebanon, Moscow forgave $4.5 billion in Libyan debts. It is important to note that Moscow stopped arms sales to Libya after a UN resolution in 2010 called for that end, costing Russian arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, approximately $4 billion.

The exact value of Russian arms contracts still viable in Syria is unclear at the moment.

Russian companies have active contracts to build pipelines connecting Iraq and Syria, contracts that will summarily end if Moscow aligns with powers against Syria in the Security Council.

Further, Russia has heavily invested in Syria. These vital investments will prompt Moscow to continue choosing these strategic benefits to the Kremlin rather than engaging in the condemnation of what appears to be a humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Reflecting on Russia’s calculated partnership with Syria, it is easy to see why Russia is stalling the vote in the UN Security Council against Syria.

It is imperative that global leaders examine first, whether it is appropriate to intervene to stop this internal violence.

Second, it would be prudent for Russia, and China who has also refused to vote for the UN resolution, to be prepared for the possibility of the eventual fall of the dictatorial regimes they have been supporting in the Middle East. This includes the end of lucrative arms deals and port access for their warships.

(Mary E. Stonaker is an independent scholar most recently with the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. She can be contacted at marystonaker@gmail.com)