Putin supports Syria for fear of revolution spreading to Russia’s Muslims

Published: September 6, 2013

As Russian President Vladimir Putin told a press conference this morning in St. Petersburg that his support for Syria’s Assad regime is unshakeable, three Russian warships reinforced the message as they slipped through the Dardanelles bound for the eastern Mediterranean.

Putin said he is unconvinced by the evidence produced by the United States, backed by analysis in France, Britain and Germany, that it was Syrian government forces of President Bashar Assad that attacked a Damascus suburb on August 21 with poison gas, killing about 1,400 people.

It is far more logical, Putin insists, that Syrian rebels made the gas attack as a way of trying to incite international intervention which will depose Assad and put them in power.

Putin has made it clear he will use Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council to block any international backing for military retribution against Assad for the gas attack.

With many of America’s allies bowing to domestic public opinion and refusing to join punishment attacks on Assad’s regime, it looks increasingly likely that President Barack Obama will have to go it alone if there are to be reprisals.

It is also clear that Putin does not intend to shrink from allowing his firm support for Assad to further undermine Moscow’s already woefully dysfunctional relations with Washington.

“Will we help Syria? We will, same as we do now,” Putin said at today’s press conference. “We’re supplying arms and co-operating on economy. I hope there will be more humanitarian collaboration, including in humanitarian aid supplies to the people, the civilians who found themselves in such dire straits.”

The Americans already face a difficult and uncertain operation if they intend to use air power to destroy Assad’s chemical weapon stocks. Even the most surgical of air strikes seldom avoid civilian casualties.

The Russians clearly intend to keep a very close watch on what the Americans do and to make their air or missile operations as difficult as possible. In what looks like a piece of Cold War brinkmanship, Russia is substantially increasing its naval deployment off the coast of Syria, where it uses the port of Tartus as a re-supply base.

The three warships that entered the Mediterranean this morning are two large landing ships and the spy ship SSV-201 Priazovye. In a brief this morning, Oxford Analytica, the British-based global risk analysis and strategic advisory firm, said a third large landing ship will soon leave Sevastopol to pick up a “special cargo” at Novorossiysk before joining the deployment off Syria.
The missile cruiser Moskva is due to arrive in the region in 10 days and to take over as flagship of the flotilla, which includes two warships, two support ships and three landing vessels already in the region.

The Kremlin said on Thursday that the deployment is only so that Russia can evacuate its nationals in Syria if necessary. The commander of Russia’s navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, said the ship movements are part of regular rotations in the Mediterranean fleet.

All of this begs the question why Putin is so determined to support the Assad regime.

Although Syria has since the 1970s been Moscow’s only dependable ally in the Middle East, they have no strong political links and there have been frequent disputes. And while Russia is Syria’s main arms supplier, Damascus’s business accounts for very little of Moscow’s global arms sales.

No, what is driving Putin is domestic considerations.

He, like other leaders aware of their own shakey political legitimacy, has been concerned about contagion in Russia from the “Arab Spring,” as he was concerned with the “colour revolutions” that felled post-Soviet Union dictatorships in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Putin has said on several occasions that chaos in Syria risks destabilising the whole region. That region, of course, includes Russia’s largely Muslim and restive southern territories of the North Caucasus and Chechnya.

Putin is already convinced that the U.S. and its allies are playing a subversive role in Russia, supporting his opponents and dissidents. He sees Western-supported Russian non-governmental organisations and civil society groups as fifth columnists intent on undermining his administration.

Obama is reinforcing Putin’s view, during the U.S. President’s visit to Russia for the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. Reports from Russia say Obama intends to meet critics of the Putin administration, and homosexual and lesbian activists. This is Washington’s protest at recent Russian legislation, which is seen as persecuting gays.

The Russian newspaper Izvestia this week carried an irate editorial criticising Obama for not seeking Russia’s co-operation in dealing with Syria. “Instead he has only uttered nonsense about Russia in recent months and presented us as a regime from the Middle Ages ruled by a despot,” said the editorial.

Also, Putin sees Washington as being all too ready to use civil unrest as an excuse to facilitate the ouster of regimes of which it disapproves.

Russia and another Security Council veto-holder, China, think they were duped into supporting the 2011 imposition of the no-fly zone in Libya, which led to the overthrow of the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

Neither Moscow nor Beijing is willing to let Syria become a second domino in what might turn into a cascade of Western-assisted regime changes. Jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe