The port of Oktyabrsk is situated on the left bank of the Bug River, 58 km.
north of the entry to the Black Sea. Close to the city of Nikolayev, this
anonymous Ukrainian port could not seem further from the strife-torn Middle
Yet in the last year, Oktyabrsk has played a key role in the
international structure that enables the survival of the Assad dictatorship in
Syria. It is the main point from which ships bearing the Russian arms that
underwrite the Assad regime’s survival set off undisturbed on their journey to
the Syrian coast.
Chartered by the state-owned Russian arms corporation
Rosoboronexport, the ships make their way from Oktyabrsk to the Black Sea. They
cross the Bosphorous Straits to Limassol in Cyprus and continue to the Russian
deep sea port in Tartous, Syria. These shipments form a vital node in Moscow’s
tireless effort to prevent revolution in Syria.
They have received
insufficient international attention.
If Syria constitutes, as some
believe, the central linchpin to understanding events in the Middle East, then
the signs are not positive. The Western preference for disengagement from the
Mideast mess is not being mirrored by non-Western powers. Rather, as the
determined and efficient arms line to Assad shows, Moscow’s Syria policy
combines clear goals with a brutal effectiveness in their pursuit.
Russia so determined to preserve Assad’s rule? The first reason is economic. As
Russia returned to international prominence over the last decade, arms exports
to Syria increased exponentially. Between 2007 and 2011, imports from Russia
accounted for 78 percent of all Syrian arms imports, according to a recent
report by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
second-largest supplier of arms to Assad in the 2007 to 2011 period was Belarus,
which accounted for 17% of Syrian imports. The isolated Lukashenka regime in
Minsk does not pursue an independent policy in terms of arms supplying. Rather,
it sells Russian arms systems in coordination with – and probably under the
direction of – its Russian patrons.
So put the figures together and you
have 95% of Syrian arms imports arriving from Russia or its satellites. It
doesn’t end there. The remaining 5% of arms imports, says SIPRI, come from Iran.
But the Iranians, too, are largely providing Syria with Russian arms
Moscow’s economic interests in Syria are not limited to the
sphere of arms exports. Russian companies are heavily engaged in infrastructure
projects and oil and gas exploration.
Total investment in Syria amounted
to $19.4 billion in 2009.
The second reason Russia is invested in Assad’s
reign is strategic. The naval base at Tartous gives the Russian Navy the
capability to operate in the Mediterranean and thus to reach the Red Sea via the
Suez Canal, and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar, in reduced
The Russians also have an interest in maintaining a troublesome
client in the Levant in order to act as a potential tool of disruption and
political pressure against the West in its own backyard. Moscow sees itself as
threatened by NATO expansion eastwards.
It is useful to have a well-placed
client whose capacity for trouble-making might act as a deterrent to Western
This element, which dovetails perfectly with the Assad regime’s
well-known practice of creating problems and then offering its services to help
solve them (at a price), dates back to the period of the Cold War.
nebulously, Russia fears the spread of Islamism to the North Caucasus and
Central Asia, and perhaps also the spread of the belief that dictators are
fallible further west of Russia itself.
Finally, Russian support for
Assad produces a self-evident reason for doubling down on itself: namely, the
fact that the opposition to Assad is well aware who is keeping him afloat, and
is keeping accounts. As a Free Syrian Army officer in Antakya told this
reporter, a post-Assad Syria would “neither depend on, nor have relations with,
nor take weapons from Russia.”
How important are the Russian weapons to
the dictator’s survival? They constitute a single but vital component in the
determined international coalition gathered behind Bashar Assad. The Iranian
Quds Force and Hezbollah are there on the ground, providing assistance and engaging where relevant in direct combat. Russia and China are blocking any
moves for real action against the regime by way of the UN.
Russian lifeline to be removed, perhaps Iran, China or North Korea might try to
make up the difference. But as of now, it is Russia which is pumping the iron
lifeblood into the veins of the regime.
Against this, the Free Syrian
Army is still running its meager arms smuggling operations across the mountains
from Turkey and Lebanon, backed by myriad and confused channels of Sunni
Islamist, Qatari and Saudi money. The demonstrators are still going out to be
killed in Deraa, Homs, Idlib and Hama.
The West, meanwhile, is still
backing the stillborn Annan peace plan.
The lost blue-bereted UN
observers are floating around those parts of Syria they are permitted to
The Obama administration may well still be seeking to convince
Russia of the need to make Assad step aside. Washington correctly assesses that
only Moscow might have the power to achieve this. The problem is that Russia
shows no interest in assisting the US.
Instead, it is backing its client
to the end. In so doing, Moscow is demonstrating that it well understands the
harsh and Hobbesian nature of patron-client relations in the Middle East. If the
dictator survives, Moscow and Tehran’s triumph will be well-noted by regional
As will the West’s hapless flailing.
Day by day, the
killings and the chaos in Syria are continuing. Day by day, the guns and
ammunition are being loaded aboard at the quiet port of Oktyabrsk in southern
Ukraine. And day by day, Russia is building political and strategic capital in
the traditional way – through strong will, clear direction, and the backing of
clients – in the face of a Western policy in utter disarray.
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