Crackdown in Syria, and the Roads that Lead to Moscow
by PAUL JANICZEK
June 25, 2012
The Merchant Ship Alaed, was stopped about fifty miles off the Northern coast of Scotland in the Morning hours of June 19th. Her cargo was a number of refurbished Mi-24 helicopter gunships which were embarked in the Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation, bound for the Syrian Port of Tartus. The Ship's insurance company known as "The Standard Club" had suspended the ship's insurance coverage preventing her from docking or mooring in any reputable port. In effect, the transaction was halted. But the temporary halt to a contentious arms transfer begs an examination of the motives of those involved, and raises questions of the US response to the entire situation especially in view of recent news of Russian Warships preparing to sail to the Syrian Port of Tartus.
Daily, news reaches US television and print about the dire situation in Syria where a minority-run government is fighting a brutal counter insurrection against its own people. The regime has observed few taboos of war in putting down the civil strife, including the use of artillery and airstrikes in dense urban areas. The methods and ammunition in question are inaccurate and result in heavy collateral damage. Hence, the nature of this effort could not reasonably be construed as measured or surgical; it is campaign to pacify by terror through the indiscriminate use of lethal force.
Moral clarity would demand that this is a compelling case for intervention by western powers. Things quickly get complicated on examining the world politics of the Syrian Situation. Syria remains the only dedicated friend to two players in the region who are under siege. Iran is the primary benefactor of the Assad regime and is rightly singled out for being so. Iran needs to maintain a friendly umbilical cord to their lackeys in neighboring Lebanon known to most as the terrorist group Hezbollah. Support for Hezbollah is critical to maintaining Iranian standing among anti-American political forces in the region. Further, one need not look beyond a map of the Middle East to see that, in the long time rivalry between Iraq and Iran, Syria would make a steadily modernizing military like Iraq think twice about any sudden aggression with hostile neighbors to the east and the west. Hence a warm relationship with Syria provides leverage for an increasingly isolated Iran.
But as a key player, Russia too has a great deal to lose and significantly more resources to be made available to the Assad regime. Many pundits of Middle East politics observe that the Assad regime is the only friend left for Russia in the region. Syria hosts a Russian radar base which, according to a February 29th article in the Washington Times, underwent significant upgrades. Similarly, the Port of Tartus hosts a Russian Naval contingent which hosts occasional show of force visits by the Russian Navy. The significance of these installations in Syria cannot be understated.
The Russian government seeks to gain much information on the operations of NATO along its southern tier. NATO air bases in Turkey are a hub of logistical activity for forces flowing into Central Asia and the Middle East. The ability to gain real-time information on the size and scope of air activity there, as well as the deployments of US aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, would be a valuable tool to understanding NATO operations and therefore intentions.
Similarly, as the Russian Navy is undertaking fewer but longer range deployments, a logistics hub for its forces in Tartus would strengthen its geopolitical response to NATO operations. Further, and perhaps more compellingly, the recent discovery of major natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean could threaten the standing of Russian state energy producer Gazprom. Depending on a number of decisions yet to be made with respect to how these new deposits will be exported, an alternative source of natural gas for western Europe would erode the Russian position in the European gas market and therefore a key lever of political influence in European decision making.
In view of the discovery of a potential energy/political game changer, it makes eminent sense for the Russian government to attempt to preserve its position with respect to port access so close to the new natural gas field. Although a number of other matters factor into their relationship, this is a key driver for Russian support of the Assad regime.
So far US thinking has been slow to account for this three way culmination of interests. The hard reality of economics and military power seemed to be lost on the US and her allies, when in February of this year the United Nations Security Council attempted to pass a resolution calling President Assad to step down. Russia and the Peoples Republic of China voted against, and thus killed, the measure. It is unlikely that Assad would have stepped down in any event, but there were ample signs that Russia's interest in maintaining a relationship with the regime most notably in the arena of arms sales began in February of this year. Together, Russia and Syria agreed on the sale of the sophisticated air defense missile systems, supersonic anti-maritime missile systems as well as advanced combat/trainer jets. All of the deals were completed through the Russian company known as Rosoboronexports, a semi-private/semi-official arms trading firm.
Rosoboronexports has a troubling past. In 2006, the company was slapped with US sanctions for violating the Iran Non-Proliferation Act of 2000 for allegedly supplying the Iranian government with materials aiding to their nuclear program. The following year, then President, former Prime Minister and now President again, Vladimir Putin decreed that Rosoboronexports would be the only state-sanctioned defense exporter. In May 2010, the US lifted the sanctions on the company under the stated belief that the Russian position on Iran and its nuclear program had evolved since 2006. In August 2011, a deal was consummated to sell 21 Mi-17 helicopters to the government of Afghanistan via American Foreign Military Sales structures: the most reliable supplier of finished aircraft and spare parts were in Russia necessitating the involvement Rosoboronexports as the only licensed exporter of the equipment.
The media firestorm was abrupt and by modern standards lengthy when last week it was reported that the same company supplying the Mi-24 attack helicopters to the Assad regime was enjoying the right to sell to the Afghan government through US defense contracting agencies. What makes the Mi-24 so much more objectionable than the previous sales is that those systems already inked since the beginning of the anti-Assad uprising are largely defensive in nature. In view of the apparently unbridled carnage of the Assad effort, Mi-24s could multiply the already devastating killing power being levied against the rebels by carrying a massive payload of weapons. Further, press reports indicate that the aircraft are fully refurbished and in a near-ready state to fly. Thus, it became a safe inference that the helicopters were intended to aid the regime's struggle.
It is clear that Syria is in a terminal struggle, and that struggle has implications for its two allies that would be profound. But as Iran struggles under the pressure of sanctions, its reserves of wealth stand to shrink and be of lesser importance to Damascus. In that regard, Syria's continued friendship with Russia, which already has a robust history, will grow deeper. Should the opposition fail to oust Assad, it could be a watershed moment in which the patrimony that the Syrian economy requires switches from an Iranian orientation to a Russian one.
Russian interest in maintaining its position in Syria is geopolitically clear: the perception of harm to the Russian economy, should Mediterranean natural gas come online without its influence, is incalculable. As the situation evolves on the ground in Syria, US policy makers would do well to remember that. It would also be well for them to remember that poor decision making may serve only to embolden their aim in preserving their position, their last position in the Middle East.
Paul Janiczek is a former White House appointee to the State Department. In that Capacity he served as a diplomat and an analyst in strategic issues related to Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons. He holds a masters degree from the Naval War College.