The Kremlin reaffirmed its vow to support Syria after President Bashar al-Assad requested economic help last week. Assad’s regime has faced a number of challenges over the past decade, including a civil war, ISIS, and allegations of crimes against humanity.
Putin and Assad Inseparable
Economically, individual Syrian individuals and businesses have been targeted by US sanctions since the administration of US President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama issued an executive order barring US citizens from doing business with the Syrian government in addition to embargoing oil imports.
President Donald Trump doubled-down on the hard-line approach to Syria, citing human rights abuses. Much like the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, the US may sanction any individual, anywhere in the world for conducting business deals with Assad.
The harshness and lengthiness of US sanctions, taken in tandem with civil unrest and terrorism, have decimated the Syrian economy. Consequently, Assad has few options for relief, if he wants to maintain his power (Washington has conditioned the lifting of sanctions on Assad stepping down).
Deal Coming in December
Moscow is without question Damascus’ largest benefactor, and despite Putin facing his on challenges at home and abroad, the Kremlin is unlikely to waver in its support for Assad anytime soon.
“We are expecting to sign a pact in December, during my next visit to Syria’s capital, that would outline a new framework for trade and economic ties between the two countries for the coming years,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov during a joint news conference with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus.
The two allies condemned the latest US sanctions on Syria while maintaining that buttressing their alliance will allow them to overcome the disastrous economic effects, CBS News reported. With his nation’s economy down 80 percent since the Syrian Civil War, Assad has stooped to publicly begging Putin for help.
“The government was determined to continue to work with Russian allies to implement signed agreements and to ensure the success of Russian investments in Syria,” Assad said.
An agreement is expected to be finalized in December, a development that will solidify Russia’s continued stake in Syria’s—and by extension, Assad’s—fate. Although Moscow began forging its relationship with Damascus decades ago, the connection has become all the more vital for the Kremlin in recent years.
Putin has made it his business over the past decade to revive the Soviet Union, at least in spirit if not in territorial strength. He’s targeted former bloc states, such as Ukraine and Georgia. What he can’t take outright, he subjects to mixes of soft and hard power campaigns to weaken and, inevitably, dominate.
The Middle East is simply an extension of Putin’s plan to extend his power beyond Russia’s borders. Russia was already emboldened to act without concern for consequences during the Obama presidency, but Trump has given Putin a blank cheque to run wild, particularly in Syria.
After Trump hastily agreed to Turkey’s demands to withdraw from Northern Syria, the American leader instantly forfeit the territory and any hope of gaining leverage over Assad, to Putin. As Dmitriy Frolovskiy wrote in February 2019 for Foreign Policy, “Russia received the best possible gift from the Trump administration right before Christmas (2018).”
The Tartus Port
As the US retreated from the world stage, other states such as France and Russia saw an opening to fill the power vacuum left behind. Although Putin would undoubtedly love the opportunity to annex more land, Middle Eastern states have proven notoriously hard to control, particularly for Russia (or the USSR, rather). No, Putin’s goal with Syria lies in bolstering the Russian military’s power to project itself throughout the region.
It’s naval base in Tartus, Syria, is it’s only foreign base from which to launch naval operations. It’s not new either, having existed since 1971, but Assad was the Syrian leader who turned it into a permanent Russian fixture on the Mediterranean. The area is prime real estate as it is located near the most economically valuable shipping lanes in the world: the Suez Canal.
Russia also operates an air base in Hmeimim, Syria. The Kremlin recently dedicated $500 million to improve its Tartus port, as Reuters reported, and received more land for its air base in a deal cut with Assad, according to The Arab Weekly.
In purely military terms, Syria represents the maturing of Russia’s comparatively limited military projection ambitions. Of course there are economic interests as well, such as Russian oil companies that have invested in Syrian operations, but those take a backseat to Putin’s power grab.
With the US mostly gone from Syria, Russia only has to compete with Turkey and Iran for influence over Assad, but neither of those states are in a dominant position like Russia. Syria is confirmation that Putin has revitalized Russia has a global power broker and the Russian leader, having secured a virtually limitless presidency, will put that political capital to work in other regions of the world as long as he is left unchallenged by the West.