By William Tucker
Syria will once again be on the agenda for the UN Security Council as the violence between al-Assad loyalists and opposition parties continues. The UN estimates that nearly 5,400 people have been killed since the uprising began a year ago and a frustrated Arab League monitoring mission has left Syria without any accomplishment. There is a growing chorus of nations that want Bashir al-Assad to leave power, but this time it is not being led by the West. Many Arab nations have stated unequivocally that al-Assad must go and they are pushing hard to make that happen. Currently, there is only one Arab nation – Morocco – serving on the UNSC, and it is representing the Arab position by introducing the most recent resolution on the Syrian situation. The Arab position is understandable, not only because of ethnic ties, but politically speaking, the idea is to undermine Iranian influence in the Levant. Standing in the way of any resolution that could be construed as forcing al-Assad out and reaching the Arab goal is Russia.
Russia’s position in blocking any strict resolution on Syria is two fold. First, Russia wants to maintain a naval presence in the Mediterranean basin by keeping some of its forces stationed in Syrian port city of Tartus. Strategically speaking, it is possible that NATO could block the Bosporus and thus cut off Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. By having assets in Tartus, Russia could still have some naval options available. Additionally, this will also put Moscow’s military power in closer proximity to the Suez Canal – another strategic choke point. Second, Moscow sees a need to pursue a sweeping national security agenda before the substantial population decline prevents Russia from defending its interests globally. Russia’s national security concern vis-à-vis Syria is if the UNSC can force out Gaddafi, and possibly al-Assad, who would be next? Moscow worries that the West could use these resolutions as a precedent to remove heads of state that are friendly to Russia. More specifically, those nations that were once part of the Soviet Union.
In 2008, Russia actually went to war with Georgia over this very issue. While the fighting was sparked over political issues between the two states, Russia justified its actions by pointing to Western support for Kosovo’s decision to declare independence. In essence, Moscow was showing that if the West could shift political boundaries, so too could Russia. This point was made quite plainly when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev wrote an opinion piece in a U.S. newspaper justifying Moscow’s decision to intervene in Georgia. Many former Soviet states in Eastern Europe quickly took note. The invasion of Georgia coupled with the defeat of the Color Revolutions in several nations showed that Russia could still play quite decisively on the world stage. But for Moscow, this will not last. The U.S. has withdrawn its forces from Iraq and will follow suit in Afghanistan over the next two years. This will give Washington increased military bandwidth to use as a check on the activities of major powers such as Russia and China. Russia is faced with the prospect of dealing with a battle hardened U.S. military and a rapidly declining population. Ultimately, Russia’s future prospects do not look favorable and Moscow cannot afford to lose any area of influence it has.
Aside: One more thing I would like to mention with regards to Russia’s interests in the Middle East is energy. Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, used natural gas and oil shipments to Europe as a economic lever. The European dependency on Russia for energy is difficult to overstate. If you were to look at a map of oil and gas pipelines running into Europe you would notice that all but two are under Moscow’s control. The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 forced Europe to look for alternative methods of energy delivery. Because of geography the choices were limited, and a lot of effort went into feasibility studies for building more pipelines under the Mediterranean. In short, not much was accomplished and Europe is still at Russia’s mercy when it comes to energy. Russia even managed to gain control of the only pipeline in the Middle East that transports crude to the Mediterranean. It just happens to run through Syria.
Photo: Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Source and date unknown.