Russia's role in the Syrian Civil War

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Russia and Syria

Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011 between President Bashar al-Assad's government and thousands of demonstrators, Russia has played a strategic role in the unfolding of the crisis on the world stage.

In a historical context, the two countries have shared a close relationship, as Syria is Russia's closest Middle Eastern ally. In 1956 Syria followed Egypt in acquiring arms from the Soviet Union, and the Suez War accelerated a multiplication of ties between Syria and the Soviet Union—ties closely associated with the increase in power and influence of the Ba'ath Party.[1]

Russia has denied accusations that it is taking a side in the war or that it has a special relationship with the current Assad government, and has also accused other countries of aiding the rebels.[2][3]

Rhetoric and actions at the UN[edit]

Dmitry Medvedev in a joint press conference with the Syrian President following Russo-Syrian talks in May 2011

Russia has at various times used its UN Security Council position to block resolutions that would condemn the Syrian government (often in concert with China), including [4] blocking the first[4] and second drafts of a Franco-British sponsored attempt to condemn the use of force by the Syrian government.[5] A council diplomat said, in the case of the first, that Russia objected to "the publication of the report as an official Security Council document", but another council diplomat stated that "It's obviously an attempt to protect (Syrian president) Bashar al-Assad".[4] The vetoed issuance of the report in March had apparently contained material incriminating both the leadership of Iran and Syria in matters related to the transmission of arms to militant groups.[4] The first and second drafts of the resolution sponsored by France, the UK, Germany, the US and Portugal condemning the Syrian government were opposed by Moscow because it was feared they could lead to an interpretation by Western countries that could allow for interference in Syrian affairs similar to what occurred in Libya.[5] An interview in the government-run media outlet Voice of Russia stated that "What arouses concern is that this resolution of Britain and France declares illegitimacy of the regime of Bashar Assad. That means that the approval of the resolution will make it possible for other countries to doubt the legitimacy of the regime on the base of this document."[5]

In response, the following Friday, loyalist diaspora Syrians in Lebanon rallied in front of the Russian and Chinese embassies in Lebanon to "express their gratitude for Russia and China's support of Damascus and [to reject] the conspiracies sought against Syria",[6] while, on the same Friday, some protestors in Syria itself burned Russian flags and carried signs with anti-Russian slogans to show their anger at Russia's position, which they perceived as helping Assad.[7]

On 2 June 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "It is not in the interests of anyone to send messages to the opposition in Syria or elsewhere that if you reject all reasonable offers we will come and help you as we did in Libya ... It's a very dangerous position." [8] Lavrov said furthermore that Russia opposes United Nations involvement because "the situation doesn't present a threat to international peace and security ... Syria is a very important country in the Middle East and destabilizing Syria would have repercussions far beyond its borders", and asserted that Assad had made attempts at major reform.[8]

Later in June, both the US and other Western governments[9] as well as Syrian protesters[7] prevailed upon Moscow to change its position, and finally a Syrian anti-government delegation visited Moscow and met with Russian envoy Mikhail Margelov, who after the meeting noted that "leaders come and go" and called for "an end to any and all forms of violence", which some interpreted to be a shift away from Assad, once a major ally, in foreign policy.[10] A switch of positions by Russia was considered to be potentially hazardous for the Syrian regime, given the Syrian government's reliance on Russia for weapons, and diplomatic and economic support in the past.[10]

On 19 July, President Dmitri Medvedev said he was working with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to find consensus for a strategy to persuade the Syrian government to abandon violence and begin a constructive dialogue with protesters. He did not threaten to use Russia's veto at the United Nations Security Council to oppose a resolution critical of the Syrian government, as Moscow has previously said it could do. Medvedev also said it was imperative that Syria not slide into civil war the way Libya did.[11]

Amid the siege of Hama, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a 1 August statement documenting deaths in Hama as well as condemning the violence, including the alleged killing of eight policemen by Assad's regime. The statement beseeched the pro-Assad forces as well as the violent protesters to "exercise maximum restraint".[12]

On 3 August, Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin stated that Russia will not oppose a UN resolution condemning the violence in Syria as long as it does not include sanctions or other "pressures".[13] Al Jazeera reported that Russia had "softened the blow" to the Assad government by insisting successfully that the UN would make a statement rather than a resolution on the matter.[14] On 23 August, the Russian delegation to the UN, along with those of China and Cuba, took to the floor to denounce a UN inquiry into human rights violations by the Assad government.[15] Vitaly Churkin stated that "We hope to see progress, we hope to see dialogue established in Syria.... We think we should continue to work within the scope of that unified position." [16]

On 26 August, Reuters reported that according to UN envoys, the effort by the US, France, the UK, Germany and Portugal to impose UN sanctions on Syria was meeting "fierce resistance" from Russia and China, with Vitaly Churkin threatening to use Russia's veto power.[17] According to Reuters, the arms embargo included in the sanctions would prevent Russian firms (the main source of Syrian weaponry) from selling to Syria.[17] Russia proposed a second "rival" resolution to be voted on, described as "toothless" by Western diplomats, which did not include sanctions or other punitive measures, but rather urged Syria to speed up the process of its reforms.[17]

On 4 October, Russia and China exercised a rare double veto against a Western-drafted Security Council resolution, which would have threatened the Syrian government with targeted sanctions if it continued military actions against protesters.[18][19] However, in the days following their opposition on the Security Council to a 'Libyan intervention scenario', both Russia and China issued rare public admonishments of the Syrian government, separately expressing their desire for the government to reform and respect the will of the Syrian people. "If the Syrian leadership is unable to complete such reforms, it will have to go, but this decision should be made not by NATO and certain European countries, it should be made by the people of Syria and the government of Syria," Medvedev told the Russian Security Council.[20] This veto was interpreted as signaling to the international community that Russia would remain an ally of the Assad regime, while experts asserted that China wanted to send a message to its own dissidents in the wake of the Arab Spring.[18]

On 1 November, Sergei Lavrov said at a Russian-Gulf ministerial meeting that Russia would oppose the recent proposal for a no-fly zone in Syria as (in Russia's view) the no-fly zone in Libya had been used to "support one side in a civil war". Lavrov nonetheless stated, when asked if Russia was supporting the Assad government, that "we are not protecting any regime".[19]

On 15 December, Russia proposed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the violence "by all parties, including disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities". The draft resolution also raised concern over "the illegal supply of weapons to the armed groups in Syria". Western diplomats initially referred to the proposed resolution as a basis for negotiations.[21] The proposal is an updated version of a Russian-Chinese draft resolution introduced to the Security Council a few months earlier.[21] By the end of January 2012, however, a competing resolution proposal had been drafted by Western and Arab powers, which, in contrast to the Russian draft, did not condemn violence by both sides in the conflict and did not rule out military intervention. Russia indicated that it would not agree to the Western-Arab draft in its current form,[22] and that it would continue to promote its own resolution in the Security Council.[23]

On 4 February 2012, Russia and China vetoed another Security Council resolution, sponsored by Western and Arab countries, which urged Bashar al-Assad to adhere to a peace plan drafted by the Arab League.[24][25] On 7 February 2012, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, along with foreign intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov, met with President Assad and reported to the world that President Assad was committed to reform of the constitution and electoral process. Additionally, the Russian delegation said that Syria alone held the power to change the fate of its people, without foreign intervention.[24] On 16 April Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and other Russian diplomats met with members of the Syrian opposition and Hassan Abdul-Azim, head of an opposition group, the National Coordination Body.[26] When special U.N. envoy Kofi Annan developed a plan to end Syrian violence, Russia attempted to play a major role in the outcome of the plan by meeting with both the Assad government and opposition forces, while vetoing multiple plans during Security Council votes to accomplish the goals set forth by an international consensus.

On 20 April, the Security Council announced an agreement to expand the number of U.N. cease-fire observers in Syria from 30 to 300, as well as to allow Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to decide on the peacekeepers' deployment based on conditions on the ground.[27] Under the plan, Syrian violence would immediately stop and the Assad government would begin implementation of the Annan six-point peace plan.[27] The draft was the result of two texts proposed by Russia and European Council members.[27] When the texts were merged, the portion imposing sanctions on the Assad government for failure to comply with the peacekeeping plan was removed, as requested by Russia and China.[27] The Russian draft also did not contain language dictating that U.N. peacekeepers' presence in Syria was a condition of Assad's agreement to return troops and heavy weapons to their barracks.[27]

The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was passed by the U.N. Security Council on 21 April 2012, and deployed up to 300 unarmed observers to Syria for a period of up to 90 days. The plan also called for passage of the Annan peace plan, making unanimous passage of the resolution significant. After the peace plan was passed, Russian's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin relayed Russia's support of the agreement to the media, while other nations expressed frustration with the process and lack of progress in ending the violence so far.[28]

In the aftermath of the Houla massacre Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that "The government bears the main responsibility for what is going on" and that "Any government in any country bears responsibility for the security of its citizens".[29] Russia's reaction was considered to be a condemnation of the Syrian government.[30] However, Lavrov also stated that the rebels shared the blame for the killings, noting that some victims had been killed at close range in a district controlled by the opposition fighters.[31] As talk of UN intervention intensified, a foreign affairs committee chair in the Russian government, hardened Russia's stance, moving it further away from the earlier condemnation of Damascus, saying that "We have very strong doubts that those people who were shot at point-blank [range] and were stabbed, that this was the action of forces loyal to President Assad.... The shelling was probably ... the troops of Mr Assad, but the stabbing and point-blank firing was definitely from the other side."[32]

A Bloomberg article said that although Russia has tried to retain the image of a peacemaker in this conflict, Russian diplomats have repeatedly criticized the potential condemnation of Assad by western nations. Russia has also accused the West and allied nations of sabotaging a cease-fire brokered by Russia between Syrian forces.[33]

According to Steve Rosenberg of the BBC the UN's stand on Assad's removal is strongly backed by the US. Both are requesting Russia to stop selling arms to the Syrian government. Russia's response involved an accusation, that the US is setting double standards. Russia feels that the US is acting hypocritically by expecting them to discontinue selling weapons to the Syrian government, since the US supplies Syrian rebels with weapons via Turkey. From Russia's perspective, if US aids the Syrian opposition, they are indirectly, undermining Russia's national security. BBC commented that Russia expects only one of two outcomes to take place in the Syrian civil war: either Assad stays in power, ensuring their stronghold influence in the middle east region, or, radical Islamists take over, creating a terror threat for Russia.[34]

Arms Sales[edit]

Russia has been shipping large amounts of weapons to Bashar al-Assad, with one ship loaded with "dangerous cargo" notably having to stop in Cyprus due to stormy weather on 10 January 2012.[35] Russia's current contracts with Syria for arms are estimated to be worth 1.5 billion US dollars, comprising 10% of Russia's global arms sales.[35]

The recent Syrian conflict began in early 2011, and as word spread globally of the increasing death toll, Russia's arms sales sparked anger and criticism on the part of certain Western and Arab nations,[35] and global leaders encouraged Russia to end arms sales to Syria. Russian officials refused, however, noting the contractual obligations they were under with their customers,[33] and the Russian government defended its sales by pointing out that they did not violate any standing arms embargoes.[35]

As the conflict continued, Western anger over the arms sales grew. On 1 June, right after the Houla massacre, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled Russia out, condemning Russia's alleged "continuous supply of arms to Syria" and that in her view, Russia's stance in the conflict was not neutral as it claimed it was.[36] In particular, there was ire over a report that Russia allegedly delivered arms to the Syrian port of Tartus in the same week of the infamous massacre. In response to this and to American criticism of Russia's policy on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that Russia was shipping any arms "which can be used in a civilian conflict" to Syria .[36] Later, the Russian foreign ministry also retaliated with a statement saying "The tragedy in Houla showed what can be the outcome of financial aid and smuggling of modern weapons to rebels, recruitment of foreign mercenaries and flirting with various sorts of extremists."[36]

In addition to reportedly providing the refurbished MI-25 helicopter gunships, Russia has also transferred to Syria the Buk-M2 air defense system, the Bastion coastal defence missile system, and Yak-130 combat jet trainer.[37] Russian shipments of fuel have also assisted Assad,[38] and an unspecified number of military advisers are teaching Syrians how to use Russian weapons.[39] The head of Russia's federal service for military-technical co-operation confirmed that the repaired Syrian MI-25 attack helicopters were "ready to be delivered on time" adding that "Syria is our friend, and we fulfill all our obligations to our friends".[40] Amnesty International, noting the Syrian government's headlong deployment of military helicopters, criticised Russia: "Anyone supplying attack helicopters — or maintaining, repairing or upgrading them — for the Syrian government displays a wanton disregard for humanity."[41] Human Rights Watch warned Russia's state-owned arms-trading company Rosoboronexport in a letter that, under international law, "providing weapons to Syria while crimes against humanity are being committed may translate into assisting in the commission of those crimes", and called on governments and companies around the world to stop signing new contracts and consider suspending current dealings with the Russian company.[42]

In May 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow in a bid to convince Vladimir Putin not to sell S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries and 144 missiles to Assad’s government. The long-range air defense system would be a leap for Syria’s current air defense system, enabling them to down fighter planes and cruise missiles.[43]

In October 2013 a group of Russian military contractors from Slavonic Corps (Славянский корпус) was deployed to As-Sukhnah and engaged in fire exchange and suffered losses. One of the contractors lost his ID, which was later published by Syrian and Russian media. Shortly after the group was retreated and the company disbanded.[44]

The Assad government has used Russian-supplied MI-8 and Mi-17 helicopters to carry out barrel-bomb attacks in Homs. According to former senior American intelligence official Jeffrey White, Russia is most likely providing spare parts such as engines, transmissions and rotors.[45]

In January 2014 a Russian company AR 514 (514 авиационный ремонтный завод) posted photos in their portfolio showing them performing repairs and upgrade on Su-24 identified to belong to Syrian fleet.[46]


Historical relationship between Russia and Syria[edit]

Russia’s political presence in Syria predates the creation of the modern Syrian state after World War II.[47] The late 19th and early 20th centuries can be characterized by a series of events linking the two nations together. In 1893, a Russian consular office was established in Damascus, further cementing the relationship. By 1905, the Imperial Russian Orthodox Society had opened 74 schools in Syria, but by 1910, the society was spending most of its income on Syrian education, even neglecting its principal obligation to the Russian pilgrims in the Holy Land.[47] The Bolshevik revolution essentially brought an end to Russian presence in Syria for a brief period. Although the Soviet Union did not play a large political role, it helped Syria establish the first Syrian Communist Party in 1925.[47] The relationship was restored when Moscow established diplomatic links with Syria in 1944 before Syria was formally recognized as an independent state on 17 April 1946. Over the years, Syria has received substantial military and economic aid from the Soviet Union and Russia.

During the Cold War, Damascus served as an ally to Moscow in opposition to the western powers, creating a stronger political bond.[48] Between 1955 and 1958, Syria received about $294 million from Moscow for military and economic assistance,[47] a business relationship that continues today. Thousands of Syrian military officers and educated professionals studied in Russia during the senior Assad's four-decade rule, and such connections have resulted in many marriages and mixed families.[49]

The Syrian Revolution of February 1966 allowed the Soviet Union the opportunity to further support Syria. This was due to the possibility of acquiring basing rights on the Mediterranean Sea in order to counter the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Had the Soviet Union and Egypt united against the United States and neighboring Israel, this would have greatly increased Soviet influence in the region.[50] In April 1977, President Hafez al-Assad visited Moscow, and met with Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin among others, as a sign of improved Syrian relations with the USSR. Three years later, in October 1980, Syria signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union.[51]

Economic importance and history of arms sales[edit]

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

Arms sales from the Soviet Union and Russia to Syria are well-documented. Reports released by the United States Congressional Research Service in 2008 note that Syria purchased several billions of dollars' worth of military equipment from the former Soviet Union, including SS-21 “Scarab” short-range missiles (range 70 km).[52] According to the report, Soviet military sales to Syria in the 1970s and 80's were so extensive, they accounted for 90% of all military arms exports from the Soviet Union, making the Soviet Union a main supplier of arms for Syria.[52] After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Syria found itself deprived of arms imports, but continued to seek them through Soviet satellite states.[52] The establishment of Russian Federation in 1992 saw the re-introduction of the patron-vendor relationship and the cancellation of almost 73% of Syria's debt.[52]

Today, Russia is the world's second largest arms exporter (behind the United States) and lost $4 billion in Libyan contracts due to a United Nations arms embargo in 2011.[53] According to reports, 2.4% of Russia's exports comes from defense-related sales, so the recent Arab Spring conflicts saw an uptick in sales to countries like Syria.[33]

Naval facility at Tartus[edit]

Much attention has also been pointed at Tartus, Syria, which is home to Russia's only naval facility in the Mediterranean region. This facility comprises two medium sized piers (one inoperative), two storage buildings, an administrative and barracks building, and a vehicle shed. It is currently manned by four personnel.[54][full citation needed]

Critics say the position of the naval facility serves as a chief motivating factor for speaking out in favor of the Assad regime to maintain stability in the region.[55][56][57] The facility at Tartus is the only Russian naval facility outside of its own territory (and Ukraine), making it of great importance tactically and economically to protect military investments.[58] Press reports in March 2012 indicated that Russian special forces arrived at the port. When questioned by the press about supposed outright support of the Assad regime through these actions, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that "There are no (Russian) special forces with rifles and grenade launchers running around."[58] The officials also deny the presence of Russian ground forces meant to reinforce Assad's rule.[58]

Russia also maintains an OSNAZ GRU electronic surveillance facilities in Latakia[59] and Al-Harra[60] (captured by the rebels in October 2014) and airbase facilities at Tadmur (Palmyra).[61]

Signals intelligence facility at Tel Al-Hara[edit]

Main article: Center C

The Syrian government hosted a Russian GRU listening station near the Syrian-Israeli-Jordanian border at Tel Al-Hara for an unknown number of years. The station was abandoned in late 2014 before it could be overrun by American-backed rebels. Syria is believed to host at least 2 more Russian intelligence bases.[62]

Regional and world prestige[edit]

Journalists and world leaders have voiced concerns that Russia is attempting to play a strategic role in the Syrian conflict in order to boost its world standing and legitimacy.[63] Former U.K. ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008, Tony Brenton, said in a recent interview that Russia is looking for its first opportunity since the Cold War to boost its brokering abilities.[33] Many critics now point to Russia's learned lesson of 2011 when it abstained from a U.N. vote concerning military intervention in Libya.[48] Because of this abstention, the resolution to establish a no-fly zone in Libya passed. The war eventually led the country into chaos, replacing a regime that originally purchased Russian arms with a weak central government that was much less friendly to Russia.[48] Russia would like to maintain control of the Syrian conflict, critics assert, to avoid a situation similar to Libya.

In January 2012, Human Rights Watch criticised Russia for "repeating the mistakes of Western governments" in its "misguided" support of Assad.[64] The human rights group also accused Russia of selectively using one of its reports to support a one-sided position on Syria.[65] Before March 2012[66] Russia had shown constant and vocal support for the Assad government, which is now considered to be Moscow's last remaining ally in the Middle East.[67] During the war, Syrian officers and air defence personnel were trained in Russia.[68]

Russia has shipped arms during the uprising to Assad's government allegedly for use against rebels.[69] In the opinion of some commentators one of Russia's major interests is access to the port of Tartus, home to its only remaining military facility outside the former USSR and thus a key source of its influence in the eastern Mediterranean.[37][70]

Pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church[edit]

Patriarch Kirill I has made statements stressing the need to act in the interest of Syria's Christians, whom the Russian Orthodox Church believes are threatened by a wave of Islamic fundamentalism it associates with the rebels.[71]

Notable events concerning Russia in the Syrian Civil War[edit]

  • December 2011–February 2012: The Arab League Monitoring Mission is deployed to Syria, unarmed. Violence between the Assad government and the opposition forces grows, and many opposed to the Assad government who do not wish to stage a violent coup flee the country. A second UN resolution is voted down by China and Russia.[56]

On 11 June 2013, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that President Assad's position had led to the current situation in Syria. He stated on Russian state media that:

"Syria as a country was rife for some kind of change. And the government of Syria should have felt that in due time and should have undertaken some reform. Had they done that, what we're seeing in Syria today would have never happened."[72]

On 26 June 2013, the Deputy Russian Foreign Minister confirmed that the small Russian naval base at Tartus has been evacuated. Mikhail Bogdanov stated that “Presently, the Russian Defense Ministry has not a single person stationed in Syria. The base does not have any strategic military importance,”.[73][74]

On 9 September 2013, responding to U.S. threats of strikes against Syria in response to use of chemical weapons in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a proposal intended to avert a U.S. attack, with provisions including Syria's placing its chemical weapons under international control and their subsequent destruction.[75]

On 12 September 2013, The New York Times published an op-ed by Vladimir Putin urging the United States to avoid unilateral military action and work with international cooperation in support of a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict.[76]

Circassian diaspora[edit]

There is a small Circassian diaspora in Syria consisting of the descendants of the muhajirs who emigrated or were expelled from the Caucasus in the aftermath of the Caucasian War. During the civil war a few thosand applied for Russian visas and residency permits in order to resettle there, as a group of Kosovo Circassians did in 1998.[77] About 400 have resettled in Kabardino-Balkaria, 220 in Adygea and 40 in Karachay-Cherkessia.[78] Tastikin writes a total of 1,200 have left for Russia.[79]


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Further reading[edit]