The world knows that Bashar al Assad is well past his sell-by date. You can’t massacre so many of your own subjects and expect things to go back to normal afterwards! The UN resolution that Russia and China just veto’d was hardly going to upset things too much for either of them. It was just a step forward for Western pressure and another nail in Assad’s coffin. Unfortunately, we didn’t take account of three factors in the Russian decision; history, elections and vested interests.
Let’s look at history first. Modern Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, sought to extend its influence in the Middle East through the supply of vast quantities of arms, “advisers” and economic aid to needy regimes. This was amply illustrated in both the 1967 and 1973 wars involving Israel, Egypt and Syria. In fact in my Army training studies on military strategy we saw how the relative strengths of American and Soviet weaponry faced off in those two conflicts; an indication of how they might both have fared in a major European conflict. America supplied Israel and the Soviet Union supplied Egypt and Syria – as well as other countries not immediately involved at the time.
Since then, the Soviets Union and now modern Russia have lost all these clients for their arms industry; all except one – Syria. With some $2.5 billion in arms contracts not yet completed and paid for, Russia can ill afford to lose this last vestige of her former influence in the region.
Which brings us to vested interests. Besides lucrative arms deals, Russia has invested heavily in Syria’s economy and oil industry. She also has the fulfilment of a decades old desire for a warm-water naval base in the Mediterranean in the form of the port city of Tartus. If Assad falls now, Russia risks the potential ignominy of exclusion from trade deals and/or ejection from Tartus under a yet-unknown future regime. And if the rest of the Middle East is anything to go by, it could well be an extremist Islamic leadership she has to deal with in the future.
Lastly, Vladimir Putin wants nothing to mar his presidential election campaign, now in full swing. He needs to show he is strong on behalf of Russia’s interests in the face of any Western impingement on his nation’s influence in the region. To lose influence and prestige through forsaking Assad too early could be fatal for his presidential plans.
Russia is a proud nation, which longs for greater hegemony and a return to super-power status in the world. Vladimir Putin is not about to let anyone, anything or the UN get in the way of his ambitions or his country’s hopes for extended influence and power.
To a former Russian security chief, a few hundred dead bodies are sadly just the by-product of progress – his own and that of Mother Russia!