- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Outnumbered at the just-completed G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not give an inch on Syria, preferring to maintain one of Russia’s most valuable, though unpopular, alliances.

While President Obama and the leaders of six other Western democracies want a framework that would lead to Syrian President Bashar Assad relinquishing power, Mr. Putin views Mr. Assad as a unique ally, analysts say.

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Syria provides Russia its only foreign naval base at Tartus and a beachhead on the Mediterranean; cash for Moscow’s weapons; a platform from which to be a player in Middle East geopolitics, and a connection to Iran.

Iran also is a buyer of Russian technology, as well as being Mr. Assad’s other key ally in what human-rights groups say is his ruthless effort to defeat anti-government rebels.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who endorses military action to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, said the Group of Eight setting allowed Mr. Putin to show the world that Russia is a re-emerging power.

“He knows the U.S. will not do anything and Iran is critical to his Middle East strategy,” Gen. McInerney said. “He wants to keep his Syrian port for the [Mediterranean] influence by [the] Russian navy. And finally, he wants to show world that U.S. is now a paper tiger and Russia is the dominant power.”

Mr. Obama declared last year that Mr. Assad must not cross a “red line” and use chemical weapons. Now that the regime’s use of sarin gas has been confirmed, the president has refused to go further than providing small arms to disparate rebel groups. The White House has rejected setting up a NATO no-fly zone.

Mr. Assad has the backing of Russia and its weapons; Lebanese Hezbollah militants, a U.S.-designated terrorist group; and thousands of fighters sent by Iran.

Mr. Putin also has an economic agenda.

“Syria has been a client of Russia since about the end of World War II,” said Bart Bechtel, a former CIA officer assigned to the Middle East.

After the Cold War, he said, Russian scientists and engineers found that places like Syria offered a new market for high-paying jobs when they could no longer find work in former Soviet-ruled states in Eastern Europe.

“Russia began selling large amounts of military weapons and hardware to Syria, Iran and Iraq,” Mr. Bechtel said.

Russian technicians have plenty of Russian-made gear on which to work, including jet fighters, helicopter gunships and air-defense systems. Last month, Mr. Assad announced via state-run television that the first batteries of long-range S-300 anti-aircraft missiles had arrived from Russia.

“There is enormous political symbolism in the S-300 deal, which is bolstered by Russian sales of anti-ship missiles and MiG fighters, and naval deployments to the eastern Mediterranean,” former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton wrote this week. “Russia’s support to prevent Assad’s fall is already having a considerable impact on the conflict, whatever steps Mr. Obama may now hesitatingly undertake.”

Mr. Bolton previously told The Washington Times: “For some time, especially after Libya, the Russians have been concerned about the West overthrowing regimes that are friendly to Moscow. For the Russians, that adds a kind of strategic context to the importance of the bilateral relationship they have with Syria. … A pro-Western regime from the Russian point of view is a nonstarter.”

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