SYRIA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
The Moscow-Minsk-Tehran axis propping up Assad
, June 23, 2012
Syria’s civil war is unambiguously showing that Russia sticks by its long-time allies, while the West, especially the United States, continues to disengage from the Middle East.
A Syrian affairs expert, Jonathan Spyer, who visited Australia recently, is a senior fellow at the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. He told his Australian audience that Russia, hand-in-glove with Iran, is propping up the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia has not only steadfastly opposed the imposition of sanctions aimed at pressuring Assad to relinquish power, but has instead opted to significantly beef up its military aid to his regime.
Spyer says that Russia’s crucial aid originates from the little-known southern Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk, situated on the Bug River, 60km north of where it enters the Black Sea.
Explains Spyer: “Over the past 12 months Oktyabrsk has been the linchpin in the Russian underwriting of the Assad regime.
“Ships chartered by Russia’s arms corporation, Rosoboronexport, sail down the Bug into the Black Sea.
“After that they head for the Syrian port of Tartus, via the Bosphorus Straits and the Cypriot port of Limassol.”
Spyer has catalogued Russia’s supplies of artillery, tanks and ammunition, all of these arms crucial ingredients in enabling Assad to suppress any opposition wherever it appears.
Syria’s government forces generally first shell any villages or suburbs of towns or cities where opposition is believed to exist. After that, the tanks roll in, accompanied by crack troops.
Also involved in the increasingly bitter fighting against insurgents are the pro-Assad Shabiha armed gangs.
The United Nations says that Shabiha militiamen were responsible for nearly all the 108 killings, including 49 children, in Houla on May 25. The militiamen reportedly cut the throats and shot victims at point-blank range after Russian-made tanks had bombarded nearby villages. The remainder died as a result of artillery and tank rounds fired into the villages.
Syria’s National Organisation for Human Rights has claimed that some of the Shabiha are mercenaries.
“The second crucial reason for Russian support for Assad is strategic,” Spyer says.
“Tartus provides Russia with a strategically situated port for its naval ships to operate in the eastern Mediterranean. This ensures easy access into the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal, and into the Atlantic through the Gibraltar Straits, which means Russia has resumed being able to easily engage NATO’s navies, both in the Mediterranean and beyond.”
Of the 13,500 Syrians reportedly killed so far, some 2,500 have died since a UN-backed ceasefire was announced and supposed to come into force, according to human rights observers.
Spyer says that, although Russia is determined to preserve the Assad regime, primarily for economic reasons, it is also demonstrating to the world that it has returned to be a major international player, especially in the Middle East.
Between 2007 and 2011, Russian-supplied weapons made up 78 per cent of all Syrian arms imports, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
If one adds to these the weapons being provided by Russia’s satellite, Belarus — which account for another 17 per cent of Syria’s arms imports during the same period — it means that some 95 per cent of Syria’s weaponry originates from Moscow and Minsk. The remaining five per cent is from Iran.
Spyer says that Iran is also clear-minded about its goals. It is seeking to emerge as a major winner in the Syrian civil war because it has long sought to command a clear “highway” linking Tehran to the Mediterranean.
He observes: “With Shi’ite Iraq now leaning toward Iran, Syria being dependent upon it, and Lebanon under the virtual total control of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite Hezbollah, this looks set to becoming a reality.
“Assad is clearly totally dependent upon a Moscow-Minsk-Tehran axis, with some backing coming from China.
“Russian support also includes nearly $20 billion in 2009 by way of investment in Syria’s oil and gas exploration sectors and construction of infrastructure.”
Spyer visited southern Turkey early this year where he met and interviewed members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is fighting Assad’s forces.
He recalls an FSA officer telling him that a liberated Syria would break all contact with Russia.
Without Russian military aid Assad’s Syria would be severely disadvantaged even though the assistance obtained from Iran, and Hezbollah, especially from adjacent Lebanon, is also proving to be crucial.
Although elements of the disunited groupings that make up the FSA also receive aid from foreign sources, the quantities are not comparable to that reaching the Assad regime from Russia and Belarus.
Spyer says that Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide small quantities of weaponry which have begun to slowly reach the FSA groups opposing Assad’s heavily armed and increasingly well-provisioned forces.
This means that Sunni Syria’s civil war has become a flashpoint in a conflict between Sunni Muslims — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the FSA — and Shi’ites of Iran and Hezbollah.
Turkey, also Sunni, is providing varied forms of assistance to the FSA, including sanctuary.
According to Spyer, the crucial consideration to bear in mind is that if Assad manages to suppress the uprising and goes on to slowly crush any remaining opposition, rulers across the Middle East will draw one clear and unambiguous lesson, that Russia does not let its clients down when their survival is at stake.
Observes Spyer: “This is in contrast to the United States — the ever-hesitant Obama administration — which has basically stood aside as the pro-American leaderships in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen were sequentially toppled.
“Syria’s alignment with Russia and Iran is the core of [the Assad regime’s] survival. This policy is making sense.
“Western hesitancy to confront Iran is helping [Assad’s] Syria survive.
“Russia believes it is winning, and it consequently believes its prestige will rise with Syria’s survival.”
During late May and early June, Spyer toured Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, addressing over a dozen groups, which included Australian politicians, university students studying Middle Eastern affairs, and community associations.
While Spyer was still in Australia, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin held talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao ahead of a meeting with Mr Hu’s likely successor, Vice-President Xi Jinping.
Spyer doubts that Assad’s regime will be dislodged. He bases his assessment on two factors.
First, the FSA personnel with whom he spoke in southern Turkey told him that they lacked, among other things, a unified command structure.
Second, the Assad regime would remain secure because the West shows no signs of resolve to bring about fundamental change.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.
Jonathan Spyer, “Assad’s Russian lifeline”, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center (Herzliya, Israel), May 13, 2012.