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Russia's Role in the Syrian Conflict[edit]

Bashar Al-Assad

Since the Syrian uprising 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, though sometimes rocky, relationship, as Syria is Russia's closest Middle Eastern ally. The Russian government continues to support President Bashar al Assad, despite international calls for condemnation amidst accusations that Assad’s government has killed over 9, 000 of its own citizens in order to maintain control. Human rights groups insist the number is closer to 11, 000.[1] There are several potential motivating factors behind Russia’s support of President Assad and his government. Although the international community favors a swift end to the bloodshed in Syria, the agreements have been stalled by political stalemates. Western countries favor stronger measures against President Bashar al Assad with countries such as the United States calling for his removal, while Russia and China remain staunch defenders of the regime.

Dmitry Medvedev in a Joint press conference with Syrian President following Russian-Syrian talks in May 2011

Russian Intervention[edit]

Russia's actions since the start of the Syrian conflict have been skewed in favor of President Bashar al Assad's regime. In October 2011, Russia and China exercised a rare double veto and rejected a United Nations (U.N.) Security Council resolution to impose harsh sanctions on the Assad government if it did not immediately cease attacks on its own people. [2] This veto signaled 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. [2]

On February 4, 2012, Russia and China boycotted a second U.N. Security Council resolution, which urged Bashar Assad to adhere to a peace plan drafted by the Arab league.[3] On February 7, 2012, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, along with overseas intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov met with President Assad and reported to the world that Mr. Assad was committed to reforms 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.[3] On April 16, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and other Russian diplomats met with members of the Syrian opposition and Hassan Abdul-Azim, head of the opposition National Coordination Body.[4] Although special U.N. enovy Kofi Annan has developed a plan to end Syrian violence, Russia is attempting 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 U.N. Security Council votes to accomplish the goals set forth by an international consensus.

On April 20, the U.N. 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.[5] Under the plan, Syrian violence would immediately stop and the Assad government would begin implementation of the Annan six-point peace plan.[5] The draft was the result of two texts proposed by Russia and European Council members.[5] 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.[5] 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.[5]

The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was passed by the U.N. Security Council on April 21, 2012, and deploys up to 300 unarmed observers to Syria for a period of up to 90 days. The plan also called for passage of the Kofi Anna 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.[1]


Historically Close Relationship Between Russia and Syria[edit]

Russia and Syria

Russia’s political presence in Syria predates the creation of the modern Syrian statehood after World War II.[6] As early as the 10th and 11th centuries, Russian soldiers served in the Byzantine army. The late 19th century and early 20th 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. [6] The Bolshevik revolution essentially brought an end to Russian presence in Syria for a brief period. Although Russia did not play a large political role, it helped Syria establish the first Syrian Communist Party in 1925.[6] The relationship was restored when Moscow established diplomatic links with Syria in 1944 before Syria was formally recognized as an independent state on April 17, 1946. Over the years, Syria has received substantial military and economic aide from Russia.

During the Cold War, Damascus served as an ally to Moscow as they fought the imperial powers of the West, creating a stronger political bond.[7] Between 1955 and 1958, Syria received about $294 million from Moscow for military and economic assistance, [6] a business relationship continues today.

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.[8] In April 1977, President Hafez al-Assad visited the Soviet Capital, Moscow, 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.In October 1980, Syria signed a 20-year treaty of friendship and cooperation with the USSR.[9]

Arms Sales[edit]

Arms sales from the Soviet Union and Russia to Syria are well-documented. Reports released by the United States Congressional Research Service note that Syria has purchased several billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the former Soviet Union, including SS-21 “Scarab” short-range missiles (range of 70km)[10] According to the report, Soviet military sales to Syria in the 1970's and 80's were so extensive, they accounted for 90% of all military arms imports for the Soviet Union, making the Soviet Union a main supplier of arms for Syria.[10] After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Syria found itself deprived of arms imports, but continued to seek defense systems through Soviet satellite states.[10] Russia's establishment as a nation-state in 1992 saw the re-introduction of the patron-vendor relationship and the cancellation of almost 73% of Syria's debt.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] The recent Syrian conflict began in early 2011, and as word spread globally of the increasing death toll, global leaders encouraged Russia to end arms sales to Syria. Russian official refused, however, noting the contractual obligations they were under with their patron states for arms.

Much attention has also been painted to Tartus, Syria, which is home to Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean region. Critics say the position of the naval base serves as a chief motivating factor for speaking out in favor of the Assad regime to maintain stability in the region.[13][14][15] The port at Tartus is the only Russian naval base outside of its own territories, making it of great importance tactically and economically to protect military investments.[16]

Press reports in March 2012 indicated 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 said that Russia is obligated to provide training along with the arms it delivers to Syria under a legal, contractual obligation for the remainder of the year.[16] The officials also deny the presence of Russian ground forces meant to reinforce Assad's rule.[16]


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.[17] 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.[12] Many critics now point to Russia's learned lesson of 2011 when it abstained from a U.N. vote concerning military intervention in Libya.[7] Because of this abstention, the resolution to establish a no fly-over zone in Libya passed. The war eventually led the country in to chaos, replacing a regime which originally purchased Russian arms with a chaotic government with alleged links to al Qaeda.[7] Russia would like to maintain control of the Syrian conflict, as critics assert, to avoid a similar situation to Libya. Although Russia has retained the image of 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.[18]

Timeline of the 2011-2012 Syrian Conflict[edit]

Although some sources say the recent Syrian conflict was the result of several decades of discontent and catalyzed by the 2011 Arab Spring. The series of events are as follows:

  • January 2011: Syrian citizens become disenchanted with the nearly five-decade rule of the al-Asad family and started peaceful demonstrations.[14] These demonstrations were thought to be part of the larger Arab Spring movement of 2011, coupled with deeply-rooted demographic differences between the ruling family and its citizens. The family, members of the minority Alawite sect, is rooted in Shiite Islam and has a history of violently suppressing the majority Sunni Muslim community.[14]
  • March 2011: Demonstrators in Dara'a called for democratic reform, increased political freedom and the fall of President Bashar al Assad's regime. Demonstrators clashed against government forces after learning of the government's alleged torture of children for carrying anti-Assad slogans during peaceful February protests.[14] As the government used force against its citizens and organized counterdemonstrations, the uprising spread to several cities throughout the country, including Banias on the coast, Deir el-Zour in the east and Qamishli in the northeast.[14]
  • April 2011: The government declared that it would not tolerate dissidence from citizens, and named a new cabinet.[14]
  • May 2011: The U.S. government and members of the European Union impose sanctions on President Asad to encourage a cease-fire against his citizens.[14]
  • June 2011: Unrest in Northern Syria drive Syrians in to Turkey, increasing regional tensions and the death toll.[14]
  • August and September 2011: U.S. President Barack Obama calls for Syrian President Assad to step down. Oil imports from Syria to the European Union are banned.[14]
  • December 2011 through February of 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 vetoed by China and Russia.[14]
  • February through March of 2012: Government forces attack opposition forces in Homs, Idlib and other cities with opposition strongholds. The UN/Arab League Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan attempt to negotiate a settlement between government and opposition forces.[14]


  1. ^ a b "UN Authorizes 300 unarmed Syria Monitors". CNN. 2012-04-21. Retrieved 2012-04-22.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  2. ^ a b MacFarquhar, Neil (2011-10-05). "With Rare Double U.N. Veto on Syria, Russia and China Try to Shield Friend". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
  3. ^ a b "The Long Road to Damascus". The Economist. 402 (8771): 25–28. 2012-02-11. 
  4. ^ "Syrian opposition delegation holds talks iwth Russian diplomats in Moscow". The Washington Post. 2012-04-16. Retrieved 2012-04-19.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  5. ^ a b c d e "UN Security Council reaches tentative agreement on increasing monitors in Syria to 300". The Washington Post. 2012-04-20. Retrieved 2012-04-20.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  6. ^ a b c d Kreutz, Andrej (2007). Russia in the Middle East: friend or foe?. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group. 
  7. ^ a b c Trenin, Dmitri (2012-02-05). "Russia's Line in the Sand on Syria: Why Moscow Wants To Halt the Arab Spring". Foreign Retrieved 2012-03-15. 
  8. ^ Breslauer, George W. (1990). Soviet Strategy in the Middle East. Boston, Massachusetts. 
  9. ^ Lea, David (2001). A Political Chronology of the Middle East. London, United Kingdom: Europa Publications. 
  10. ^ a b c d Sharp, Jeremy M. (2008-05-01), "Syria: Background and U.S. Relations", CRS Report for Congress, Washington, DC 
  11. ^ Grove, Thomas (2011-08-17). "Russia to sell arms to Syria, sales overall to rise". Reuters. Retrieved 2012-03-12. 
  12. ^ a b Meyer, Henry (2012-04-20). "Putin Pins Hope on Syria Cease-Fire to Combat U.S. Supremacy". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 2012-04-20. 
  13. ^ Brodsky, Matthew RJ (2012-04-05). "Russia's Show of Syrian Force". Huffington Post World. Retrieved 2012-04-06. 
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Sharp, Jeremy M., ed. (2012-03-26), "Unrest in Syria and U.S. Sanctions Against the Asad Regime", CRS Report for Congress, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service  Unknown parameter |coeditors= ignored (help);
  15. ^ "The Long Road to Damascus". The Economist: 25–28. 2012-02-11. 
  16. ^ a b c "Russian special forces arrive in Syrian port: opposition sources". Al Arabiya News. 2012-03-19. Retrieved 2012-03-24. 
  17. ^ Gutterman, Steve (2012-03-21). "Russia Out to Maintain Clout, Improve Image on Syria". Retrieved 2012-04-23. 
  18. ^ Meyer, Henry (2012-04-20). "Putin Pins Hope on Syria Cease-Fire to Combat U.S. Supremacy". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 2012-04-20.