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Syria-Russia Relations

After having intervened to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from being toppled, swinging the war definitively against the rebels just as his government appeared to be heading for defeat, the Kremlin has become more entrenched in Syria and owns the problem. If the Kremlin fails to secure a lasting peace, or is unable at least to stabilize the war-wracked country, still being buffeted by several micro-conflicts, then entrenchment risks turning into a potentially expensive entanglement that would undermine Russia's new regional clout.

Russia is balancing contradictory interests in Syria. The Kremlin wants to restore the central government and expand the writ of its client Assad across the country, including over the Kurdish-controlled northeast and an arc of territory from Afrin to al-Bab in the northwest now occupied by Turkish troops and rebel Sunni Muslim allies. Turkey, a NATO member Moscow has been assiduously wooing, has its own designs on Syria.

Russia maintains a Soviet-era naval maintenance site near Tartus, which is the country’s only military foothold on the Mediterranean. The Soviet-era facility is operated under a 1971 agreement by Russian personnel. Since 1992 the port has been in disrepair, with only one of its three floating piers operational. Russia's naval supply and maintenance site near Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus will be modernized to accommodate heavy warships after 2012, the Russian Navy chief said on 02 August 2009. "Tartus will be developed as a naval base. The first stage of development and modernization will be completed in 2012," Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky said, adding it could then serve as a base for guided-missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers.

Russian warships were sent to the military base in Syria in December 2011. The fleet was led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Included also are a patrol vessel and other vessels. The Russian government announced that from December, a flotilla of warships will be sent to the naval base that it has in Syria. The authorities affirmed that the fleet will be led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and also have a patrol vessel, an anti-submarine ship, and other vessels. "The sending of the Russian ships to Tartus should not be seen as a reaction to what is happening in Syria (...) This was already planned from 2010, when there were no such events existing there. It has not been an active preparation, and there is no need to cancel or postpone it," insisted the spokesman, who explained that the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov also will visit Beirut, Genoa and Cyprus.

Russia has been a major arms supplier to Syria since the Soviet era and political cooperation with Damascus has often been far more valuable to Moscow than money. In 2005, Russia wrote off more than 70 percent of Syria's $13-billion debt, much of which was the result of Soviet-era arms deliveries. Although financial interests now play a more important role in defining Moscow's approach to Syria than during the Cold War, political concerns still remained the cornerstone.

Russia and Syria have enjoyed friendly relationship. Syria supported Russia in its fight against terrorism. Russia and Syria used to cooperate much in construction industry, and many Syrian specialists had graduated from the Soviet universities. Over 40,000 graduates of Soviet and Russian universities live and work in Syria. Many of them hold leading positions in various spheres related to culture.

According to some, Syria remains Russia's only ally in the Middle East. But Yevgeny Satanovsky, who heads Russia's Middle East Institute, disagrees that Syria - or any other country in the region - can be considered Russia's "ally." "We have never had 'allies' [in the region]," he said. "We have just stuffed Middle Eastern countries with money, weapons and military advisors... But what has Russia, or previously the Soviet Union, ever received in return?"

The unwillingness of Russia and China, both permanent UN Security Council members, to clearly condemn the Syrian regime for its brutal onslaught against demonstrators prevented the Council from passing a strong resolution on Syria that would further isolate the Assad regime, already under U.S. and EU sanctions. Instead, the Council only issued a presidential statement - a relatively mild, non-binding document - more than four months into the uprising, calling on Assad to put an end to violence and begin talks with the opposition.

The UN Security Council won`t tolerate military intervention in Syria, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a January 2012 press-briefing. “If the opposition refuses to hold talks with the regime in Damascus, it does not mean that bombing is necessary”, Mr. Lavrov said. Commenting on his country`s position on the proposed resolution, he said that Moscow did not insist on Assad to remain in power, but believed that Syrians should decide on their own whether he should step down or stay in office. Russia said that it will only support the Security Council resolution on Syria if it contains Russia’s principal approaches to the Syrian settlement. They include the unacceptability of any violence, the beginning of a dialogue between the authorities and the opposition, as well as the inadmissibility of outside interference in Syria’s affairs and the introduction of sanctions or any threats to impose them.

Syria, which was the Soviet Union's main strategic ally in the Middle East throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, was simply dropped out of the list of Moscow's foreign policy priorities in the early 1990s. Damascus perceived the break-up of the U.S.S.R., along with Moscow's decision to renounce global confrontation with Washington and the restoration of Russian-Israeli diplomatic relations in 1991, as a betrayal of the Arab world's interests and as a global Zionist conspiracy.

Damascus believed this 19 years ago, and many Syrians still think the same way. However, the most pragmatic members of the Syrian political elite headed by President Bashar al-Assad have always aspired to have business and military cooperation with Moscow and have counted on Russia's political support on the Middle East peace settlement. Syria's main demand within this peace process is for the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.

The ice in Russian-Syrian relations in the 1990s began to thaw in January 2005, after Bashar al-Assad paid his first visit to Moscow, which resulted in Russian then-President Vladimir Putin writing off 73% of Syria's former Soviet debts ($9.8 billion) in exchange for new guaranteed Russian weapons contracts.

Russian-Syrian bilateral trade almost doubled over the next five years, reaching $1 billion in 2009. Apart from the Russian military, oil and gas companies and other businesses are also interested in the Syrian market. A month ago, Russia's oil and gas company Tatneft and its Syrian partners started developing the South Kishma oilfield in the province of Deir ez-Zor. In December 2009, Stroytransgaz, the oil and gas engineering and construction company, built and commissioned a large gas refinery near the city of Hims, located 160 km from Damascus.

Syria and Russia signed a cultural cooperation program for 2010-2012 in Damascus on 21 March 2010. The document signed by Russian Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev and his Syrian counterpart Riyad Naasan Agha is based on a basic intergovernmental agreement on cultural and scientific cooperation concluded between Moscow and Damascus in 1995. President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, who was on a 2-day visit in Damascus in May 2010, said that Russia is seeking more active trade cooperation with Syria. “Though the global economic crisis has affected our bilateral trade turnover, we hope to improve the situation”, the Russian leader said speaking in the Syrian capital.

Assad's main objective is to enlist Moscow's political support on the issue of returning the strategic Golan Heights, a plateau 60 km long and 25 km wide, from which the Syrian capital can be clearly seen.

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