- Associated Press - Sunday, January 29, 2012

MOSCOW — Russia’s defiance of international efforts to end Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on protests is rooted in a calculation that it can keep a Middle East presence by propping up its last remaining ally in the region - and has nothing to lose if it fails.

The Kremlin has put itself in conflict with the West as it shields Mr. Assad’s regime from U.N. sanctions and continues to provide it with weapons even as others impose arms embargoes.

Moscow’s relations with Washington already have been strained over U.S. missile defense plans and other disputes, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seems eager to defy the U.S. as he campaigns to reclaim the presidency in March elections.

“It would make no sense for Russia to drop its support for Assad,” said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the independent Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “He is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East, allowing it to preserve some influence in the region.”

Moscow also may hope that Mr. Assad can hang on to power with its help and repay Moscow with more weapons contracts and other lucrative deals.

Observers note that even as it has nothing to lose from backing Mr. Assad, Moscow has nothing to gain from switching course and supporting the opposition.

Russia has crossed the Rubicon,” said Igor Korotchenko, head of the Center for Analysis of Global Weapons Trade.

Mr. Korotchenko said Russia always will be marked as the patron of the Assad regime regardless of the conflict’s outcome, so there is little incentive to build bridges with the protesters.

The United Nations estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed since the uprising began in March.

Russia will be seen as the dictator’s ally. If Assad’s regime is driven from power, it will mean an end to Russia’s presence,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs.

Syria has been Moscow’s top ally in the Middle East since Soviet times, when it was led by the incumbent’s father, Hafez Assad. The Kremlin saw it as a bulwark for countering U.S. influence in the region and heavily armed Syria against Israel.

Although Russia’s relations with Israel have improved greatly since the Soviet collapse, ties with Damascus helped Russia retain its clout as a member of the Quartet of international mediators trying to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

After Bashar Assad succeeded his father in 2000, Russia sought to boost ties by agreeing to annul 73 percent of Syria’s Soviet-era debt. In the mid-2000s, Mr. Putin said Russia would re-establish its place in the Middle East via “the Syria route.”

Syria’s port of Tartus is now the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union. A Russian navy squadron made a call there this month in what was seen by many as a show of support for Mr. Assad.

For decades, Syria has been a major customer for the Russian arms industries, buying billions of dollars worth of combat jets, missiles, tanks and other heavy weapons.

Unlike some other nations, such as Venezuela, which obtained Russian weapons on Kremlin loans, Mr. Assad’s regime paid cash.

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