Over the last two weeks, Russia has demonstrated again that it considers Syria’s government a vital ally, a strategic asset and a regime worth saving, notwithstanding the country’s two-year-old civil war. Russia’s shipment of advanced weaponry to the government of Bashar al-Assad could make it more difficult for the West to impose a no fly-zone or to establish a naval embargo in Syria, or otherwise to help advance the rebel efforts. In addition, in an apparent about-face, Russia announced it will deliver S-300 advanced missiles to Syria, in fulfillment of a 2010 contract, and it has stepped up deployment of Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean and at its station at the Syrian port of Tartus.
Russia’s motives are relatively clear. Syria is Russia’s last significant ally in the Arab world and a steady arms customer. Russia wants to hold on to its naval station in Syria, and improve its strategic position vis-a-vis the West. All that would be in jeopardy if Assad falls.
The Russian military aid and diplomatic efforts appear to be having their desired effect. With help from the Russians, Hezbollah fighters and Iran, Assad’s forces are reported to have recaptured ground previously lost to the rebels. And the U.S. and its allies are beating a path to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s door.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a hastily arranged visit to Russia, during which he pressed Mr. Putin to withhold shipment of the S-300 missiles, which could threaten Israel and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. And the West, without any other good options, has turned to Russia to co-sponsor an international peace conference to establish an interim government in Syria.
Even with the peace effort, there is a clear policy divergence with Russia. The U.S. and Turkey, which support Syrian rebels, reiterated their call for Mr. Assad to step down ahead of a conference. Russia’s recent moves appear designed to strengthen Assad’s position going in to the negotiations, should the parties ever agree to them.
While the new arms potentially threaten Israel, it is officially neutral in this complex conflict. In newspaper accounts and in private, Israel is weighing an Assad regime it knows, against a possible extremist Sunni successor that could be worse. That fear of the unknown includes concerns about possible state-supported terrorist strikes against Israel.
And for that reason, Israel has boldly stepped in to destroy what it says are advanced arms being transferred to Hezbollah, which could be used for precisely such efforts. But even limited strikes could spark a wider war, as former Muslim foes in the civil war unite against a common Israeli enemy.
Will Russia’s arm sales to Syria give it greater leverage in the troubled Middle East region? That remains to be seen.
The move has certainly provoked American opposition. “I think we’ve made it crystal clear we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance,” Secretary of State John Kerry said. The West clearly hoped Russia would stop arming Syria in exchange for Moscow’s participation in a peace effort. That hasn’t happened.
Instead, given what Moscow is now doing and saying, it is becoming clear that the price to end the Syrian conflict is going to continue to rise, and there is no clear end in sight.