Russia warned Western powers on Monday against any military intervention in Syria, saying the use of force without a United Nations mandate would violate international law. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had no plans to be drawn into a military conflict over the civil war in Syria and that Washington and its allies would be repeating “past mistakes” if they intervened in Syria.
Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the US think tank the Heritage Foundation, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Monday that in response to an attack on their Syrian ally, Russia could “expand supply of dual use nuclear technology” to Iran as its nuclear energy company, Rosatom, is anxious to sell more reactors.
If the Syrians have the Russian P-800 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile or the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system or other sophisticated equipment deployed, “they may use them to shoot at NATO or Western forces involved in these operations,” said Cohen.
The worst case scenario, which Cohen emphasizes, has a low probability, would be that an attack would lead Russia to go on a nuclear alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
Furthermore, such a Western operation against Syria would strengthen Russia’s commitment to deploy a permanent naval squadron in the Mediterranean and accelerate the search for naval bases and anchorages, such as Tartus and Latakiyeh in Syria, he said.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Post, “Russia will protest vehemently,” as it is already doing and “will act diplomatically and politically” to counter a Western attack.
“Depending on the circumstances,” Russia could aid “the Syrian government as much as possible without risking a confrontation with the US,” said Trenin.
It would also move closer to China and Iran and would likely sell Iran various weapons systems, he said.
Providing a platform for Russia’s response would be the upcoming G20 meeting as well as a planned meeting in early September with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in September.
His Carnegie Moscow Center colleague, Petr Topychkanov, an associate of the nonproliferation program, told the Post that Russia will strongly oppose any kind of Libya-style operation in Syria, but an active military role is unlikely.
“Russia doesn’t have such capabilities,” he said noting that a Russian response would be indirect such as a continuation of arms supplies and a freezing of cooperation with the US in Afghanistan.
He asserts that “such an operation will make Russia closely cooperate with Iran on Syria.”
Russia, while supporting the UN investigation, will also work to block any possibility of military operations, said Topychkanov.
He believes that if it is proved that chemical weapons were used by Syria, Russia would seriously review its position on Syria.
Anna Geifman, a Russian expert who teaches political science at Bar-Ilan University said that Syria is Russia’s only real ally in the Middle East. If Assad leaves, they will not have an ally in the region and their already limited influence would be further curtailed.
In addition, they will lose major investments in Syria’s armed forces and a naval base in Tartus.
Geifman mentions that Russia, trying to take advantage of faltering US-Egypt relations, offered its own joint military drill as soon as the US canceled an upcoming one.
Russia supports the destabilizing forces in the region, still acting with a Cold War mentality, she added.
She worries that Russia may encourage Hezbollah as a payback and because Israel is a US ally, the conflict could trigger something that drags Israel into it.
“Whenever the Russians cannot do anything direct against the West they use proxies – that has been their strategy for a long time,” said Geifman.
During NATO military operations in Kosovo during the 1990s which Russia was very much against, it nevertheless did not intervene militarily.
In today’s conflict, Geifman also sees Russia as intervening only indirectly.
Reuters contributed to this report.