News / Europe

As Syria Unravels, Russia Tries to Bolster Future Position

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) meets with Syrian opposition leaders in Moscow July 11, 2012.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) meets with Syrian opposition leaders in Moscow July 11, 2012.
James Brooke
As Syria’s civil war threatens the future of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia is trying to build a pro-Russian opposition force.

Inside Syria, Russian envoys are meeting opposition politicians. Two weeks from now, Russia will support a meeting in Italy of what it hopes will be a pro-Russian group: the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change.

In contrast, Russia will boycott a meeting in Morocco next week of Friends of Syria, a Western and Arab coalition that supports a rival group, the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

The Kremlin is hoping to build on 40 years of military, economic and educational ties with Syria. These ties date back to 1970, when Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in a coup.

Too little, too late

But Alexei Malashenko, a regional expert for the Carnegie Moscow office, says it is too little, too late for the Kremlin to play the Russia card.

“The pro-Russian place is empty,” he said in Moscow. “The pro-Russian place is compromised by the cooperation of Moscow with Bashar. So I don’t believe so-called pro-Russian opposition is able to play a big role.”

He said that Moscow missed its chance when it failed to move aggressively at the start of the anti-Assad protests, nearly two years ago. Since then, more than 40,000 Syrians have been killed, more than 600,000 have taken refuge in neighboring countries, and about 10 percent of the nation’s population of 22 million have become internal refugees.

Officially Russia claims neutrality in the civil war, stressing that the Kremlin supports the Syrian people and not the Assad government. Russian diplomats speak against Western and Arab Gulf state military aid to Syria’s rebels.

But last week, the American investigative news organization ProPublica released documents indicating that Moscow evaded international sanctions this year and sent to Damascus 240 tons of newly printed Syrian pound banknotes. Another set of documents indicated that the Russian government is preparing to ship to Syria four freshly refurbished helicopters.

Russian officials say they are merely honoring old contracts, drawn up before the civil war started. In turn, the Kremlin charges that the West is interfering in Syria.

"Russia is not opposing Western influence or putting a stick in the spokes of Western-initiated projects out of spite," Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a defense policy council in Moscow on Saturday.  "The fact is: advancing democracy through iron and blood just does not work,” he said.

This blood and iron phrase has authoritarian echoes in Europe where it was first popularized 150 years ago by Germany’s nationalist chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.

Differences with Turkey

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, December 4, 2012.U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, December 4, 2012.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, December 4, 2012.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, December 4, 2012.
NATO representatives meeting in Brussels Tuesday are expected to approve Turkey’s request for the placement of Patriot missile batteries on its border with Syria. The Patriots can shoot down incoming missiles or warplanes. Syria is believed to have several hundred surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads.

The Kremlin is highly sensitive to the placement of missile defense systems near Russia. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Turkey in a last minute attempt to dissuade the Turks.

In public, Putin only derided the Patriots as old technology, and asked Turkey to show restraint.

“We share Turkey's concern over the developments on the border,” Putin said at a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “And we are well aware of the feelings experienced by the Turkish government and people. But we are calling for restraint."

Turkey hosts thousands of Syrian refugees in border camps and allows arms to be shipped to Syria’s opposition fighters.

Dmitry Verkhoturov, a Moscow political scientist, said that Russia opposes Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.

“Russia is very displeased with Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s affairs, especially in regards to military support of the opposition forces,” Verkhoturov said.

He said that Russia could retaliate if Turkey makes any cross-border military move to support Syria’s opposition.

Over the last two years, the Kremlin has been on the losing side of three Arab Spring revolutions - in Tunisia, in Libya and in Egypt.

Malashenko of Carnegie says that the Kremlin has a hard time backing away from its public view that the Arab Spring unrest is instigated by Western powers. This handicaps Russia’s policy in Syria, long a Kremlin ally.

“It’s a symbol of post-Soviet history,” he said recalling the legacy of decades of military, diplomatic and economic partnership. “And psychologically, it is very difficult for Putin to refuse.”

But, on the ground in Damascus, realism may be prevailing.

The Russian embassy has started to evacuate some of the thousands of Russians citizens who live in Syria. Many are Russian women who married Syrian students during the height of the Cold War alliance between Syria and the Soviet Union.

  • Damaged buildings along a street in the al-Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs, December 5, 2012.
  • Syrians walk past damaged homes during heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, December 4, 2012.
  • Free Syrian Army fighters with weapons stand guard at the frontline against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-khalidiya neighborhood of Homs, December 4, 2012.
  • Buildings in Aleppo, Syria, December 4, 2012.
  • Syrians cross the border from the town of Ras al-Ain to the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, December 4, 2012.
  • Buildings damaged after a Syrian Air Force fighter jet fired missiles at Houla, near Homs, December 3, 2012.
  • Free Syrian Army fighters are seen at Houla, near Homs, December 3, 2012.
  • Residents flee their homes after shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Houla, near Homs, December 3, 2012.
  • This citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows anti-Syrian regime mourners carrying victims of shelling in Homs, Syria, December 3, 2012.
  • Residents walk past buildings damaged in heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, December 2, 2012.

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Comment Sorting
by: MarkR307 from: USA
December 11, 2012 3:12 AM
It's interesting that Russia did not support Syrian government in greater force.. I suppose they didn't have enough motivation.

by: Jethro Mayham
December 06, 2012 7:01 PM
Suprised that the VOA posted the effects of chemical weapons authored by the cdc. It could give the authorities in Syria to drop bombs of all types in a mixture to confuse what chemical the people are fighting.

by: Aviv from: South West Region U.S.A.
December 05, 2012 11:48 AM
Democracy needs an educated literate population. Mob rule is not democracy. People need peace. Children need peace. Encourage education and literacy of all citizens then empower them to be democratic.

by: Gennady from: Russia, Volga Region
December 05, 2012 10:54 AM
Igor from Russia
is blinded by the regime’s propaganda and loyal to Putin’s version of “democracy” – denial of basic human rights for millions, permanent suspension of Russian Constitution, mockery of elections.
The only “democracy” is for the FSB and the police with unrestraint abuse of power, plunder of natural resources, degradation of Russian nation, education, science, technology and healthcare.
Russia is for its people but not for those who usurped power and try to return the country to dark age of Stalinism.
In Response

by: Igor from: Russia
December 06, 2012 12:26 AM
Hey, Gennady, please show any reliable evidence to prove what you have said. if you cannot, you are lying and only the poor pumpet of western propaganda machine, which is trying to weaken Russia in order to gain benefit and influence global wide. Any society has its own tumours and so as the western ones. Do you find any person in Russia who is better and more capable than Putin??? Or you think you are the right person for the post of Russian President???
In Response

by: Carlos.. from: USA
December 05, 2012 1:47 PM
Good to hear you are free to speak Gennady .. you Russians have more courage than anyone .. except maybe those fighting in Syria ..

Stay free ..

by: Carl from: US
December 05, 2012 12:06 AM
despicable .. the US and the West's refusal to aid the people in Syria to protect themselves and have freedom ... the blame is squarely on President Obama .. ten of thousand shot and killed because of his cowardice ..
In Response

by: Anonymous
December 05, 2012 6:17 AM
Yes but Syrian Allys such as Russia rejected it and would of provided even more weapons to Assad, and could have caused ww3. The West wanted to help them legally, not illegally.

by: Anonymous
December 04, 2012 11:01 PM
Too little too late Russia... Any Syrian with brains would not support Russia on their soil after everything the Syrians have been through. Russia has provided the arms to a cold blooded murderer (Assad). Friends of Syria, United States, and Arab League has done more for the Syrians, while Russia fixed helicopters for Assad and provided arms to Assad. All of which were used to exterminate anyone of opposition in Syria. I think the Syrian people should keep the Russian Government off their soil.

by: Gennady from: Russia, Volga Region
December 04, 2012 9:11 PM
At last, autocratic Mr.Putin has acknowledged failure of his support to bloody dictatorial Assad’s regime. But he completely refuses to face the same truth in his treating of the opposition in his own Russia.
It’s a complete international embarrassment to see FM Lavrov with bandaged broken arm at the “Too much, Too late” meeting. The Kremlin teaches the world while the Kremlin’s doctor’s aren’t able to prevent the development of osteoporosis in aging Mr.Lavrov’s bones.
In Response

by: Igor from: Russia
December 05, 2012 3:40 AM
Hey, Gennady, you are the person who is ready to sell your fatherland to western foreigners to receive power. Are you willing to turn the whole Russia into a rubble in order to receive some unreal democracy and favour from the West. Shut up your mouth and open wide your eyes to look at what are going on in Afganistan, Lybia, Egypt and Syria...Can you see democracy or only the products of the West: everyday hatred, killings, explosions, destruction. Democracy does not mean hatred among sects, killings and destruction!!!

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