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Thursday, March 8, 2012

How far will Russia support the Syrian regime ?

Less than the Syrian suppose, opines Sami Moubayed in his Asian Times article, "Putin offers threadbare blanket for Syria",  liberally excerpted below.

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Whenever the world seemed to start caving in around them, Syrian politicians have leaned on the Russians for support. Moscow, both now and during the Soviet era, has always been Syria's "security blanket". Syrian leaders, however, have almost equally misjudged how far Russia was willing to go to help them.

Moscow may like the Syrian regime, but it certainly likes Russian interests in the Middle East a whole lot more. This is the fundamental thing that Syrian authorities still remarkably fail to understand. Moscow needs assurances that its political influence will be maintained in Syria, and needs guarantees on a basket of other issues, such as the US defense shield in Europe, for example, and, of course, Georgia.

Several indicators to this effect have come out of Moscow in recent days. One was an interview last Friday by Putin with six international journalists, where he said he didn't have "a special relationship with Syria". He noted that Russia's trade relations with Damascus did not exceed Britain's, and when asked about chances of the regime's survival, he failed to defend his Syrian allies aggressively. Instead, he surprised the journalists with a blunt statement: "I don't know, and I can't speculate on this."

Then came statements by Georgy Petrov, deputy president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who said the chamber would temporarily suspend doing business in Syria until "the situation normalized".

And finally came a statement in The Moscow Times saying: "Russia has made it clear that it will not be able to stop other countries from launching a military intervention if they try to do it without UN approval." Despite a routine translation of the Russian press in several Syrian state-run dailies, apparently nobody picked that up, perhaps on purpose. That statement seemed to be telling the Syrians that there were limits to how far Russian could go. If a "surgical strike" were to happen, Russia was helpless at stopping it.

The Syrian-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed between then-president Hafez al-Assad and the USSR in October 1980, does not include a clause for mutual defense. It specifies regular consultations on bilateral and multilateral issues, coordination of policies, and military cooperation - but it does not oblige Moscow to take military action to defend Syria. That means the limit of how far the Russians can go, given current circumstances, is the recent veto at the UN. It cannot do more to help the Syrians.

Nobody realizes that better than Putin himself, who needs a success story "the day after" he returns to power in Moscow. It needs to make him and his country feel relevant, strong, democratic, and accepted within the international community. That success story can be Syria.

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