Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russia's Friendship has its Limits

Syria’s growing relationship with Russia has given it a rare ally in its generally isolated position. However, Moscow plays only a limited role in supporting Damascus internationally, say Syrian analysts.

Syria has built stronger relations with Russia in the past few years. Moscow has refurbished some of its old military bases in the country, and has written off 70 per cent of Syria’s debt.

According to a writer from Damascus, the relationship goes back a long way. The late president Hafez al-Assad “was smart about having a balance in his country’s relationships that included both America and Russia” during the Cold War, he said.

The situation is different today, and Russia is hoping to regain some international leverage through the relationship with Syria, analysts say.

Russia is rebuilding a base in the port of Tartus for use by its Black Sea fleet. The facility was left empty for 16 years and when finished, will be Moscow’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

Russian arms deals with Syria have raised tensions between Moscow and Israel. With the support of the United States, the Russians have offered to sponsor Middle East peace talks.

Moscow is looking to “regain its place in an international system now controlled by the United States”, the writer said. "Russia is trying to rebuild its power by creating an atmosphere similar to that of the Cold War. There is no other explanation for restoring its military presence in the region."

When violence erupted last week in Lebanon, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called for an end to violence and a return to dialogue, but did not accuse Hezbollah, Iran or Syria. Many western and Arab countries hold Hezbollah and its allies responsible for the recent violence, and for the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon.

"Russia can't defend Syria if it is attacked or further punished by the US or even by the [United Nations] Security Council,” said a political analyst in Damascus. “But at least it helps open the wall of isolation around Syria."

He noted that while the Russians have supported Syria, particularly on the Lebanese issue, they have never vetoed UN resolutions calling on Damascus to reduce its role in Lebanon.

Ultimately, he said, Russia “pursues a pragmatic policy” and does not go against the international community.

The writer argued that Russia would not benefit if Syria improved its relations with the West. If the country’s isolation were broken, “it would affect [Russia’s] economic and strategic interests in Syria and the region”, he said.

Russia “would lose a country which enabled it to get back in the Middle East again”.

Damascus, too, has an agenda of its own. "I think that Syria is creating good relations with Russia while eyeing its relations with the US,” said the writer. “Both Russia and Syria use their relations with each other to influence each country’s relations with America, but for different reasons."

The head of the Russian Communist Party, Gennaddy Zyuganov, was in Damascus this week and praised Syrian peace efforts during a meeting with Baath party assistant secretary-general Abdullah al-Ahmar, the SANA news agency reported.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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