“Losing the Syria market would not kill their arms industry. The number and types of weapons we see exported to Syria are a small percentage of the total,” said Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher in the arms transfers program of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a leading tracker of international military spending. He added that Russia also has a history of sacrificing military sales when it suits its interest, even if it’s not required to: “We shouldn’t forget Russia has imposed its own arms embargo[es] in the recent past, including on Iran and Syria.”
Rather, Russia is more concerned about domestic Islamist terrorism in the future, especially in the event that Assad is defeated. “For Russia, there is a very strong stance that it’s not a good idea to let rebels win the conflict that will only lead to, fundamentally, an Islamic regime,” Wezeman said. “Looking back at recent Russian history, they are very afraid of that.”
Moscow is also concerned about US global dominance. “While regularly cited as a primary factor in Russia’s Syria policy, the potential loss of arms exports revenues is not the main driver for Russia’s unwavering support for the Asad regime. Moscow’s strategic policy in Syria is also political: support for the Assad regime serves to counter what Moscow perceives as irresponsible US interventionism and the perceived US desire for global domination,” Keir Giles, associate fellow in the international security and Russia and Eurasia program in Chatham House, wrote in an email.
“In this respect, Russia’s Syria policy is derived from lessons learned from the past 12 years of US and allied intervention in the greater Middle East, including Afghanistan,” said Giles, who is also president of the Conflict Studies Research Center, a defense and security consultancy.
The total commercial value of weapon sales to Syria are between USD 2 and USD 4 billion for the coming years, which is a fraction of the country’s military exports and insignificant when compared to the broader economy, according to SIPRI. The exact value is uncertain, as is the case with everything in the defense industry, which is by definition secretive. It includes only public contracts signed before the Syrian conflict started in 2011, and deliveries are spaced over several years, said Wezeman. Some shipments are targeted for 2017. In comparison, annual Russian arms sales are between USD 8 and USD 10 billion, mostly to India, Vietnam and Algeria. Syria accounts for less than 5 percent of the total in annual terms.
Russian arms are exported through Rosoboronexport, the state dealer. Russia is refurbishing tanks and attack helicopters and has bought antiship missiles and the advanced surface to air missiles known as S300, as well as MiG fighter jets. “Some of those deals are already on hold, [including] the MiG-29 billion-dollar deal. That may have to do with payments,” said Wezeman. While impossible to confirm, the determinant factor in current weapons sales to Syria seems to be the country’s ability to pay. Russia has written off parts of the country’s debt in the past, and has not been very willing to keep selling on credit. As for wider economic interests, total Russian exports to Syria before the conflict were around USD 2 billion per annum, the bulk of it weapons, and total foreign investment exceeds USD 20 billion, although it’s difficult to contrast the figures. But again, Russian economic interests in Syria are minute in comparison with its USD 2 trillion economy—and, for that matter, secondary even to other economic ties in the region.
There is significant speculation that Russia is benefiting from the illegal arms trade to Syria, but there is no incentive for the Kremlin to be covertly allowing or benefitting from the illegal arms trade, for one simple reason: it doesn’t need to. Russia is not bound by any legal constraints in its arms sales to Syria, especially with regards to those that are of any value to Assad, which includes air defense systems, attack helicopters, tanks, and small arms and ammunition.
A report published this month by C4ADS, a Washington-based non-profit group, tracked increased ship traffic from a Ukrainian port from which many Russian arms are exported to Syria. The report acknowledges it cannot be conclusive, but it suggests that activity at the port likely includes arms destined for Assad’s government, shipped by a network of powerful Russian and Ukrainian businessmen with ties to high-ranking officials. The Ukrainian government, however, denies those allegations. “It raises the point of substantial traffic between those ports and Syria, but you are never entirely sure about volume,” Wezeman said about the report. “But there wouldn’t be any point for the Russian government to find other conduits. I don’t see why they would do it. Everything supplied to Iran and Syria is legal.” He continued, “They just say they don’t supply anything contracted before 2011. It’s not clear whether that means new systems or support for the old system, and that could also mean small arms.”
The real threat
That said, Russia has even greater leverage when it comes to approving pending sales of more modern weaponry to Syria and also, crucially, to Iran. Russian and US policymakers are mirroring the subtle strategic chess they played during the Cold War, this time through the press. Moscow is suggesting it would double down in Syria in case of a US-led military strike, sending the Assad regime some of its more sophisticated weaponry—like the S300 air defense system—and additional conventional weapons aid to offset Western and Arab military and financial assistance to the rebels.
Militarily speaking, that prospective Russian contribution is not critical to US and allied forces, which could easily defeat even the more modern weaponry. But Vladimir Putin has made it clear that, after the Libyan air campaign, disregarding Russia again will not go unnoticed. The logic is simple. In the broader Middle East conflict, Assad’s downfall would push Russia back, essentially forcing it to bolster its so far unreliable ties with Iran.
The more concerning and convincing Russian threat to the US, Arabs and, more critically, Israel, is that it could boost advanced weapons sales to Tehran, including of the S300, which would alter the military balance. “I can imagine they would take that decision,” Wezeman said. “The arms embargo on Iran does not prohibit the S300. Russia took a unilateral decision to not ship it, but they have the right to lift that. They are very upset over what happened in Libya, and if Russians feel they are again not being taken seriously, I can imagine them saying they would supply Iran.” For Russia, Iran is a strategic backstop bogging down the US, a more significant economic partner than Syria could ever be, and the two are geopolitically aligned on many issues, even if mistrust prevails.
Russia’s support for Assad is mostly a domestic affair: Moscow is convinced, as are many Western governments for that matter, that Islamist terrorism will spill over into its own territories. “The Middle East can appear tolerably remote from Russia; but this is to ignore Moscow’s perception that the ‘approaches’ to Russia’s borders extend to a very considerable depth. These wide perimeters of security consciousness mean that the consequences of military action in Syria or Iran would be seen as a direct security problem for Russia,” Giles said.
Additionally, there are an estimated 30,000 Russians living in Syria and an even greater number of Syrians of Russian descent, not to mention decades, if not centuries, of cultural and political relations. Russia has a naval foothold in the Tartus port—a presence it would like to deepen, especially as it tries to expand its presence in the Mediterranean. There are strategic alternatives that would replace the port, but not ones Russia would prefer.
Russia also wants to assert itself more in the vital Middle East, especially as its influence has withered in most countries since the fall of the Soviet Union. The goal is not unique, and its motivations are not much different than those of other world powers.