Friday, 1 June 2012

Russian and Iranian motives for supporting Syria's Assad

Iran is using the violence in Syria to gain influence in the region, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said May 31. This underscores Iran's fear of Syria without the regime of President Bashar al Assad. Washington is working to convince Russia and China that allowing the conflict to escalate would result in violence spreading beyond the Syrian borders, Mr Carney said, adding that greater participation by countries such as Iran could lead to a proxy war.

According to a White House news release, Mr Carney said Iran admitted involvement in the Syrian crisis by sending troops into Syria. Washington is focused on preventing Iran from continuing to support the Syrian regime, Mr Carney said.

The deputy head of Iran's Quds force, Ismail Ghaani, admitted May 28 that Iranian forces are operating in Syria in support of the regime. Mr Ghaani explained to the Isna news agency that if the Islamic republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would be on a much larger scale.

This exposure of Iranian troops operating in Syria does not reveal anything remarkable about the dire internal situation in Syria. Tehran has been heavily involved on the Syrian regime side during the unrest as there are high stakes in the fighting for Iran. The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) is quite capable of being deployed abroad, and has shown in the past to be very efficient at fighting clandestinely. Admitting their presence in Syria publicly indicates the importance Iran has placed on the al Assad regime’s survival.

The presence of Iranian troops in Syria will be a morale boost for Mr al Assad’s forces as they clamp down on violent demonstrations throughout the country. The IRGC personnel are likely to exist in an advisory role or supporting intelligence gathering and conducting specialist strike roles.

There were reports back in August 2011 of 3,000 IRGC members and 2,000 Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria. These IRGC men were allegedly leading pro-regime armed teams, while Hezbollah was supposedly killing Syrian soldiers who refuse to open fire on protesters. It comes as no surprise that those forces remain in Syria today.

Iranian Special Forces are not the only elite troops on the ground in Syria. Unconfirmed reports suggest Russian Special Forces are conducting “anti-terror” missions in support of the regime. These troops reportedly landed at the Syrian port of Tartus in mid-March. Russian officials have firmly denied the reports explaining that any Russian troop deployment is for training and security purposes and protection of Russian personnel operating in Syria.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said May 30 that Moscow is not considering altering its position on Syria and attempts to pressure Moscow is inappropriate. The spokesman said Russia's stance would remain consistent during Mr Putin's visit to France and Germany on June 1.

But both Iran and Russia have invested in the perpetuation of the Assad regime. Given the strong words in support of Assad, and the stonewalling of any harsher UN policies towards Syria, Russia clearly views Mr al Assad as a strategic ally for the Kremlin and is doing everything it can to maintain his power.

Under a 1971 agreement, Russia has permanent access to the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast which is operated by Russian personnel. The Kremlin began modernisation of the port to accommodate heavy warships in 2006, the first stage of which was completed this year by dredging the port to allow greater access.

In the past few years the port has received Russian nuclear-armed submarines, battlecruisers, and the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, not to mention thousands of tons of Russian-manufactured weapons including surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) such as the advanced SA-24 that have come ashore through the busy port destined for Syrian depots.

With all the talk of a possible Western military intervention in Syria, the sale of these munitions makes a great deal of sense for Moscow.

Any intervention in Syria would be much more risky militarily than recently conducted in Libya by NATO and the GCC. The isolation of Libya, clear demarcation of opposition-controlled territory, the depletion of Libyan air defences and the near-routing of the Libyan military opened a wide window for Western military engagements.

Syria’s armed forces are not only almost entirely intact and strategically positioned throughout the country their air-defence system is extremely robust. Removing a fully functioning early-warning and SAM network is a US Air force speciality. But the possibility of mistakes leading to shoot-downs is always present regardless of force size. Western involvement is therefore unlikely to move beyond rhetoric or clandestine insertion of Special Forces.

Russia is relying on this hedging rationality of NATO decision makers and their adverse reaction to military intervention over Syria. It is election year in many NATO countries and very few of them are keen to risk involvement which might result in large-scale strikes and high civilian deaths, and quite possibly evolve to require ground troops.

Russia has worked hard to develop S-300 SAM sites in Syria to deter any western involvement and secure its own military interests. Tartus is the only Russian naval base outside traditional Russian ports.

The base offers Moscow access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean and ultimately the larger blue water oceans. Loss of this port would severely hamstring Russia’s power projection and cut off its allies from supply. Moscow cannot let this happen.The protection of the Syrian regime by both the Iranian and Russian governments directly serves both country's interests.

Iran continues to expand its influence throughout the Levant and the Syrian state is a key piece of real estate for this strategy. Securing the support of Damascus would give Iran a crescent of influence stretching from the highlands of Afghanistan to the shores of the Mediterranean altering the power balance of the wider Levantine region.

Tehran uses its IRGC forces to ensure that whatever happens in Syria the fighting doesn’t spill over the borders, destabilising an area which it feels it is about to control. Employing their traditional proxy Lebanese force of Hezbollah militants is a smart move for Tehran as it offers plausible deniability to international claims of Iran-Syria collusion.

Russia on the other hand - a ghost of its former mighty Soviet Union legacy - anxiously needs to expand influence in the old Soviet stomping grounds of the Middle East. Gone are the days where isolated, young Arab dictatorial regimes looked to the world’s two duelling superpowers for support. Moscow now has to court these regimes to secure trade routes and military cooperation.

Securing strategic points has been a matter of intelligently proliferating vast quantities of advanced, reliable, and cheap Russian weapons. In the same way countries receiving US arms are reliant on American repairs and replacements, Russia creates repeat customers in nations with whom the US and EU countries refuse to trade.

Both Tehran and Moscow see the situation in Syria quite differently to the international community. The two authoritarian regimes are attempting to counterbalance American influence in the Middle East by supporting anti-American regimes and destabilising supportive ones.

No US combat forces remain in Iraq to counter Iranian influence. Unfortunately for the Syrian protesters, their cause, as split apart and dysfunctional as it might be, is a raison d’etre for a continuing struggle for hegemony in the Middle East going far outside their anti-regime goals.

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