Moscow defiant over Syria

Russia’s explicit support for the regimes of Syria and Iran has pitted it against most Arab governments and the strain in ties are now beginning to show. Published in MEED, 4 June 2012

When Vladimir Putin took over the presidency of Russia on 7 May, he received the usual flood of congratulatory messages from leaders in the Middle East. Few were more effusive than the messages coming from Damascus and Tehran; leaders in the other capitals were more circumspect.

No one was surprised when Putin won the presidential election on 4 March. He has been the most powerful figure in Russian politics for more than a decade and faced no credible opponents. His victory means there will be no sudden changes in the country’s policy towards the Middle East, particularly in its support for Syria and Iran. However, it is equally clear that Moscow’s relationship with many other countries in the region is being complicated, and in some cases damaged, by the events of the Arab Uprisings.

Syria support

The key flash point is Syria. Moscow has close ties to Damascus and has warned other powers against taking any military action against President Bashar al-Assad. Putin is wary of Russia losing another regional ally in the same way that it lost Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, something he clearly alluded to in an article for the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper in February.

“No one should be allowed to use the Libyan scenario in Syria,” he wrote. “The international community must work to achieve an inter-Syrian reconciliation. We are against the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions that may be interpreted as a signal to armed interference in … Syria.”

Despite the mounting death toll and increased calls for action against Damascus in the wake of the Houla massacre, Moscow has stood firm and, on this point, can count on the support of China and some others. However, it puts Russia squarely against most Arab governments, as well as the US and its Western allies.

“They’re not just defying the West on Syria, they’re defying the Arab League,” says Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University in the US. “No one’s thanking them for this in the Arab world at all.” The strain is showing in relations with some key Arab states, such as Qatar. Moscow has had no ambassador in Doha since Vladimir Titorenko left the country in December, following an alleged attack on him by customs and police officers at Doha International airport on 29 November. Russia has demanded a formal apology but none has been forthcoming.

In February, Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin was forced to publicly deny reports that he had threatened to “annihilate” Qatar during a heated debate with its prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, over a UN resolution on Syria.

On one level, Moscow can afford to bear the cost of Arab states’ ire as its trade relations with the Middle East are relatively limited. In 2010, for example, its most important market in the region was Iran, which bought close to $3.4bn worth of goods from Russia, according to the Federal State Statistics Service. In return, Tehran sold $271m worth of goods to Russia. However, that only made it Russia’s 26th largest trading partner, accounting for just 0.7 per cent of total trade that year.

Further down the list comes Israel at 34th and Egypt at 38th. Among GCC states, it is only the UAE that has any sizeable trade with Russia, worth a little over $1bn in 2010.

In all these cases, there is a healthy trade surplus in Russia’s favour. One reason for the limited amount of trade is that Moscow has plenty of the two things in which the region specialises: oil and gas. The UK’s BP estimates that Russia is home to the world’s largest gas reserves, with 44.8 trillion cubic metres or 23 per cent of the global total. It also has more oil than Libya and Algeria combined, with 77 billion barrels in the ground, or 5.6 per cent of global reserves.

Arms sales

Among the few goods it does buy from the region are foodstuffs from Iran, Israel, Morocco and Egypt and some pharmaceuticals from Israel. In return, it sells oil to Israel, cereals to Egypt, and iron and steel to Iran, among others.

Arms sales are another important component of the trade, with Algeria, Egypt, Syria and the UAE the most important markets. Indeed, arms and ammunition are now the largest element of Russian exports to Syria and the second largest to Algeria and the UAE, according to the UN Comtrade database.

In 2011, Russian arms exports to Damascus were estimated to be worth $246m, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Such sales have become increasingly controversial as the uprising in the country continues, although Algeria and Egypt both bought more, at $663m and $300m respectively.

Russia has some other commercial interests in Syria, notably in the oil industry where several of its firms are involved. Stroytransgaz is developing five gas fields, at West Twinan, Twinan, Al-Gour, East al-Akram and Al-Harith. It is also building a gas processing plant close to Al Rakka, which will have a capacity of 1.3 billion cubic metres of gas and smaller quantities of liquefied propane-butane and condensate. Other Russian firms active in the country include Soyzneftegaz, which has been exploring for oil and gas in Block 26 and Block 12, and Taftnet, which has a joint venture with the Syrian General Petroleum Corporation for exploration in the Kishma oil field.

In Libya, meanwhile, Russian Railways signed a E2.2bn ($2.7bn), four-year deal with Libyan Railways in April 2008 to build a 550-kilometre section of line from Sirtes to Benghazi, part of a larger project to build a rail line along the entire coast of Libya. The project was due to be completed by the end of this year, but at this stage its status is unclear.

Strategic presence

Despite a few high-profile deals, however, the involvement of Russian companies in the Middle East remains limited and while individual projects may be significant for the recipient country, they are less so for Russia’s economy.

In diplomatic and strategic terms, there is more to play for. Moscow prides itself on being a world power and, on that basis alone, needs to have a credible presence in the region. That at least partly explains its stance on Syria, where the port of Tartous is the Russian navy’s only outlet on the Mediterranean Sea.

Nonetheless, according to some analysts, Russia would be willing to drop its support for Al-Assad if it was clear he was going to lose, or if there was a better alternative.

“I think they are probably pragmatic enough to be capable of changing their stance on Syria,” says Philip Hanson, associate fellow at UK think-tank Chatham House. “If they see the Al-Assad regime as definitely being in deep trouble they’ll hedge their bets and be more cooperative.

“The Russians have done quite well out of their relations with states such as Syria and Iran so far. They’ll lean towards keeping those relationships, but would not go so far as to cling on to supporting a regime that is going to fall.”

If Putin does decide to switch allegiance, it will not be because of pressure at home. A survey carried out by local market research firm IFAK in February and March for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle found a clear majority supporting Putin’s policy. The survey of 1,000 Russians found that 75 per cent were opposed to any military intervention in Syria, 9 per cent approved of intervention if it was backed by a UN mandate and just 5 per cent without a UN mandate.

Opinion on Iran was more divided. Asked whether a nuclear Iran would pose a threat to Russia, 48 per cent said no, but 42 per cent said yes, with 10 per cent having no opinion.

If Moscow is to change its approach it will likely want some security guarantees, particularly over naval access to the Mediterranean. That may be difficult to achieve.

“Russia will need some reassurance over access to the port after Al-Assad goes and I just don’t see how that can be achieved,” says one regional security analyst.

Such issues mean that an international diplomatic breakthrough involving Russia is unlikely to emerge soon. In the latest discussions over a possible UN Security Council resolution on 1 June, Putin resisted tougher action saying the UN peace plan needed to be given more time to work and that the priority should be to avoid a civil war.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by accusing Russia of bias saying the country had a vested interest as a provider of arms. However, it is also doubtful whether continued support for Al-Assad will cause any long-term damage to Russia’s standing in the region.

Veto power

Diplomatic disputes tend to be put to one side as soon as more pressing issues emerge that require cooperation. And, in economic terms, recent history suggests that supporting a brutal dictatorship will not necessarily be held against Russia when that regime is thrown out of power.

Despite its longstanding support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, for example, the country’s oil firms have not been frozen out of the bidding for exploration and production contracts under the new regime. In fact, they have prospered.

In December 2009, Russia’s Gazprom won the contract to develop the Badra oil field to the southeast of Baghdad in a consortium with Turkey’s TPAO, South Korea’s Kogas and Malaysia’s Petronas.

That was followed in January 2010 with Russia’s Lukoil winning a development contract for the West Qurna-2 field in Iraq, in partnership with Norway’s Statoil and the local state-owned South Oil Company. In March this year, MEED reported that Lukoil had agreed to buy Statoil’s stake, taking its holding to 75 per cent.

“If you look at Iraq, they backed Saddam Hussein, but they got the West Qurna oil field for Lukoil and they have other contracts, so in the long-run were they really hurt?” says Katz.

“Russia thinks it doesn’t need to worry about the Syrian opposition because if they ever do come to power they’ll need it anyway, because of its UN Security Council veto. Can they really afford to bear a grudge against Russia? That’s what Russia might be counting on.”