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.
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.”
As the S-300s were arriving, a Syrian delegation was in Moscow attempting to buy more arms. A Russian official said Moscow would provide 10 new MiG jet fighters designed primarily for air defense, not ground attacks on rebels.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who recently met with Syrian rebels, said Tuesday that Russian arms shipments show that it is fruitless for Mr. Obama to hope that Mr. Putin will nudge Mr. Assad aside.
“When it comes to the administration’s policy toward Syria, to say they are ‘leading from behind’ is too generous. That suggests they are leading. They are just behind,” Mr. McCain said. “In its desperation, the administration now appears to be placing its hopes in the Russian government to push Assad from power. … This is the same Russian government that continues to provide heavy weapons and moral support to Assad, that refuses to authorize U.N. sanctions on the regime, and that even blamed Assad’s recent slaughter of civilians in Houla on the opposition and foreign powers.”
Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif, said Mr. Putin is making a big mistake, long-term.
“Why not call it a Putin-Assad alliance — an alliance of two dictators clinging together in the face of domestic, regional and global challenges?” Mr. Springborg said. “The alliance is not in the strategic interest of either country, eroding whatever support there is for Russia globally and regionally, while further alienating the [ruling] Alawites of Syria from the Arab world within which they must live, to say nothing of cutting Syria off from the [Persian] Gulf and other sources of investment.
“This is the story of two drowning men clutching on to one another. We have every interest to ensure both drown,” he added.