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Making a stand in Syria

by James Brooke at 01/12/2011 20:42

As Russia’s lone aircraft carrier prepares to steam from the Arctic to a Russian-operated naval base in Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is on the attack, warning against outside military intervention in Syria’s slow motion civil war.

“It’s not so much the authorities, but armed groups that are provoking the unrest,” Lavrov told reporters this week. He urged all parties to pressure Syria’s political players to forego violence saying: “This applies to the armed groups that work in Syria and maintain contacts with a host of Western countries and a host of Arab states. Everyone knows this.”

After being on the losing sides in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, Russia is making a stand in Syria. The Kremlin hopes the Arab Spring will wither into the Arab Winter. On Monday, the day after the Arab League voted to impose sanctions on Syria, Lavrov told Arab ambassadors in Moscow that internal problems “should be resolved peacefully through national dialogue... and without outside interference.”

The meeting seemed to be a warm up for an expected veto by Russia if the Arab League asks the UN Security Council to approve sanctions. Russia has a lot at stake in Syria. Despite the talk of peace, most of these stakes are military. For over half a century, Moscow has been the main arms supplier to Syria.

The Kremlin’s stake in Syria stretches all the way back to the Suez Crisis of 1956, when Moscow signed a military aid pact with Damascus. Relations further tightened after the bloodless coup of 1970 that started the dynasty of the Assads, leaders of the nation’s Alawite minority. A few months later, Moscow signed an agreement for the installation of a naval supply and maintenance base at Tartus, a port in the heartland of the Alawites.

Damascus residents rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad earlier this year

© RIA Novosti. / Pavel Davidov

Damascus residents rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad earlier this year

During the Soviet era, Tartus was a key base for the Soviet Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. After the Soviet collapse, this fleet was disbanded and Russian naval power largely receded from the Mediterranean. Then in 2008, when Russia was flush with oil money, Moscow started to renovate the Tartus base. The stated goal was to again make it Russia’s window on the Mediterranean. According to Izvestia, 600 Russian technicians now work in Tartus. Next week, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is to start steaming from the Arctic toward Tartus. The Kuznetsov is to be joined by two other Russian Navy vessels. Russia’s show of naval force comes one week after an American naval task force, led by the USS George H.W. Bush, the U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, arrived off Syria’s coast.

If gunboat diplomacy is the cards, Russia has an advantage on land. Hundreds of active duty Syrian officers have trained at Russian military academies. Russia-trained Alawite officers could attempt a palace coup, according to one scenario explored by Nour Malas in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. Malas quotes an Alawite officer from exile in Jordan: “Once they get the green light from Russia, the (Alawite officers) may well go ahead.”

But it is unlikely that Syria’s Sunni majority would accept a revolving door of Alawite minority rule.

In another scenario, Syria would disintegrate into a loose ethnic federation. In this case, the Alawites would retreat to their coastal stronghold, an area that was a mini-state during the French Mandate period of 1920-46. Sunnis would control Damascus and Aleppo. On the Alawitecontrolled coast, Russian basing rights would endure intact.

Yet it is unlikely that Sunni rulers in Damascus would settle for running a landlocked, rump state.

Moscow is talking peace — but is starting to brandish its big stick. On Sunday, within hours of the Arab League vote, a Russian Navy General Staff officer briefed Izvestia about the deployment of the aircraft carrier to Syrian waters. As the Kremlin moves its military pieces on the chessboard, at stake is one of Russia’s two remaining major Arab allies on the Mediterranean. If Syria goes, only Algeria remains from the glory years of Soviet diplomacy. 

James Brooke (Twitter: @VOA_Moscow) is the Moscow bureau chief for Voice of America. To view all “Russia Watch” posts, go to voanews.com The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and not necessarily those of The Moscow News.

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