In an international community largely opposed to the current regime in Syria, Russia has become one of the few allies of the Bashar al-Assad regime. While Russian support for a regime that has used chemical weapons against its own citizens may be confusing, this relationship is based out of fear for the future as well as a strategic and economic alliance that dates back to the Cold War.
In concurrence with China, Russia has acted upon their alliance with Syria to “veto” sanctions against Syria or proposals originating in the UN Security Council endorsing action against the regime. When the United Nations was founded, the creators laid out in the UN charter that China, the USSR (eventually succeeded by the Russian Federation), the UK, France and the United States, “because of their key roles in the establishment of the United Nations, would continue to play important roles in the maintenance of international peace and security. They were granted the special status of Permanent Member States at the Security Council, along with a special voting power known as the ‘right to veto.’”
A UN Security Council sanction is required for a “legal” armed intervention into another sovereign nation. Without Security Council approval, there is no legal way to form an aggressor international coalition.
Use of the veto power has blocked efforts by the United States to intervene or propose sanctions against Syria, leading an exasperated ambassador to the UN for the U.S., Samantha Powers, to remark, “The system has protected the prerogatives of Russia, the patron of a regime that would brazenly stage the world’s largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter century while chemical weapons inspectors sent by the United Nations were just across town.”
Russia is joined in its support of Syria by China, which also wields veto power. Neither Russia nor China would like to establish a precedent supporting intervention for human rights abuses in a sovereign country. Both countries have been accused of human rights abuses in the past, and have strong internal dissidents; each is reluctant to establish a future precedent for UN intervention in their internal issues.
Russia is also invested in Syria because Russia’s naval base is in Tartus, Syria, which is Russia’s only naval base outside of Russia itself. And while Russia is often called Syria’s only ally, Syria is also Russia’s last true ally in the Middle East. Russia is especially sensitive to approving resolutions allowing action against their ally after the loss of former Libyan leader Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi and his regime, who had been an important ally in the Middle East. Gaddafi was ousted in part thanks to UN sanctioned airstrikes.
Russia’s alliance with Syria dates back to the Cold War, when Russia was Syria’s main arms supplier and a supplier of both military and economic aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In a Congressional Research Service Report to Congress in 2008, Jeremy M. Sharp estimated that during the 1970s and 80s, the “Soviet Union accounted for 90% of all Syrian arms import(s).” After the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Federation was unable to provide the same level of support and the relationship collapsed.
Syrian debt to Russia for Cold War era arms deals was also a barrier to further deals until 73% of the $13.4 billion debt was forgiven after visits from President Assad in 2005. Today, it is estimated that Syria accounts for 4-10% of all global Russian arms sales, nearly $1.5 billion.
While there is no solid number on Russian investment in Syria, Russian investments are estimated to be worth nearly $20 billion, predominantly in the energy industry.
Russia’s support of Syria in the UN has affected U.S international support, as few countries are willing to go into war without the sanction of the Security Council, and has led many more Americans to question the success of a war in Syria without international support when previous wars with international backing, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, turned into such disasters.
Russian support of Syria hasn’t been completely negative, as recently Russia has supported a deal set out to destroy Syrian chemical weapons and prevent U.S involvement in the civil war. In negotiating this deal, Russia has moved from blocking action to helping find solutions, and it is viewed by many as a positive change. In an op-ed written in the New York Times, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, asserted, “From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” If this is truly the case, and Russia moves in conjunction with with the U.S towards creating this peaceful dialogue, a real solution to the war in Syria could be possible and occur soon..