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Friday, April 13, 2012

Russia Will Support Assad No Matter What: It has Needed a Mediterranean port for two hundred years.

Russia: Hell No, Assad Won’t Go.
Hugh Graham, April 4, 2011.
           Russia will not back down on Syria, nor can we expect it to. As the Assad regime intensifies its campaign to exterminate the Syrian uprising, Russia is beginning to see some advantage in Kofi Annan’s UN peace plan. But it’s only because the plan is so tepid. Moscow’s backing, however cagey, of the homicidal Assad regime, continues to feel strange, perverse. But of course it isn’t strange at all. Russia has made common cause with Iran in resisting what it sees as continued Western expansion through human rights and other pretexts. So Russia’s defense of Assad, a Shia coreligionist ally of Iran comes as no surprise. Russia also fears popular revolution. But most important, by far, are its geopolitical interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.
          The Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s only warm water naval port of call beyond the Black Sea. According to the website, “Moscow, which is showing its naval flag between Port Said in Egypt and the Strait of Gibraltar more and more frequently, obviously realizes the region's strategic importance.”  Since the new year, there have been reports of the arrival of a Russian destroyer at Tartus and the delivery of arms and even Russian special forces.
           The projection of Russian power into the region beyond its southwest borders goes back centuries and is rooted in its historic rivalry with Turkey, the protection of fellow Slavs in southeastern Europe, and  concern for the holy places claimed by the Russian Orthodox Church in Palestine which, since the fall of Soviet atheism, have regained importance. Since Turkey is still aligned with the West and the West intervened in the Balkans in the 1990s, a Russian presence in the Mediterranean is, more than ever, seen as a bulwark against Western ambitions.
            The Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, meanwhile, has become Russia’s ally and outpost against the West.  Cyprus shares Russia’s historic enmity with Turkey and remains a stone’s throw from the Syrian port of Tartus. Recently, Turkey and Cyprus have both laid claim to reserves of gas in the undersea Levantine natural gas fields. Russia has an economic interest in the Cypriot initiative which it will back with naval force if Turkey interferes. Turkey, meanwhile, continues to irritate Russia by opposing the Assad regime and accepting Syrian refugees.     
           Russia has been facing down Turkey and pushing south and west since 1700 and Peter the Great. A Russo-Turkish war ended in 1774 with the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji by which Russia wrested control of the Black Sea away from Ottoman Turkey and forced the Sultan to recognize Russia’s right to protect Orthodox holy places southward in Ottoman Palestine. Its rivals were France and England who had their own  holy places to protect in the same area.
           Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has reopened requests for access to Orthodox holy places in Israel. One such landmark is an area named ”The Russian Compound” in West Jerusalem. Putin asked for its return. Israel granted the request in 2008 but not without a broad hint that Russia should pull back on selling arms to Iran. And so, Russian Orthodoxy sits near the heart of Russia-Israel relations in this most contested of regions.
         The West watches warily as it did in the 19th century when Britain and France suspected Russian designs on the Ottoman Empire and the Mediterranean. They fought Russia to a standstill in the Crimean war which ended with Russia being forced to scuttle its Black Sea fleet in 1856.
         Communist Russia’s withdrawal from international prominence after 1917 was only a hiatus. In the mid 1950s, the Baghdad Pact aligned Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan with the West. This provoked Nasser’s opposing union of Egypt and Syria. Syria, mistrusting Nasser and the West alike, chose the Soviet Union as its defender and arms supplier and Russia’s influence in the former Ottoman province has remained constant ever since. Israel’s victory in the 1967 War resulted in the vast expansion of a southern Soviet fleet to oppose western naval and nuclear advances in the Mediterranean. Moreover, Syria became a valuable client for Soviet arms sales.
            With a Syrian client linked by religion to an Iranian arms customer, a naval port on the doorstep of the West, a nearby ally in Cyprus with possible gas reserves and all of those things ranged against a Western-aligned rival in Turkey, Russia is certainly not likely to relinquish its protection of the Assad regime any time soon.
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