Syria Conflict Has Upside for Putin
For U.S. President Barack Obama, the conflict in Syria is fraught with challenges and risks. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it has its advantages.
Officials in Moscow are following Obama's standoff with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with bated breath. Their jumpiness over possible U.S. military action was evident in the lightning speed with which the Russian Defense Ministry reported a ballistic-missile launch in the Mediterranean on Sept. 3 that turned out to be a joint U.S.-Israeli test.
It's easy to understand why many Russian officials are concerned. If the proposed U.S. intervention ends up toppling al-Assad, Russia may lose one of its few remaining allies and major customers in the Middle East. Since Soviet times, Moscow has had a cozy relationship with Damascus. Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian leader's father and presidential predecessor, was a frequent guest of Communist leaders in the Kremlin. The Syrian economy still has many features in common with the Soviet model, such as central planning, price controls and nationalized industries.
After the USSR fell apart, Syria remained one of the biggest buyers of Russian weapons. In 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, Russia sold $1 billion worth of weapons to Bashar al-Assad's regime. According to a Reuters report, Syria has recently been trying to stay in Russia's good graces by boosting payments on its armament bills.
Moscow's trust in al-Assad was displayed last week, when state news service Itar-Tass carried a report from a pro-Assad website asserting that Carla del Ponte, a member of the United Nations commission investigating human-rights abuses in Syria, had laid blame for the Aug. 21 chemical attack on Syrian rebels. The report proved false, but the Syrian ambassador in Moscow, Riad Haddad, is sticking to the story that the rebels are at fault: On Sept. 3, the news service Interfax quoted him as saying that "all the proof, evidence and data point to the fact that it was the militant groups that used chemical weapons."
Putin apparently buys the Syrian dictator's argument that he does not need to use chemical weapons because he is winning the civil war. "It is only common sense," Putin said on Aug. 31. "The Syrian government troops are advancing. In some areas they have the rebels surrounded. Under these circumstances it would be just unbelievably stupid to deal a trump card to those who are constantly calling for foreign military intervention."
One can understand Putin's distaste for the Syrian rebels. The Arab Spring was ruinous to Russia's influence in, and arms exports to, Libya and Egypt. Syria and Algeria are Russia's only remaining major customers in the area.
Still, Putin seems genuinely convinced that U.S. military action will be a mistake. "We should remember what happened in the last 10 years, how many times the United States initiated armed conflicts in different parts of the world," Putin said. "There is no peace and no democracy, which our partners purportedly wanted."
It was this sort of sentiment that carried the day in the British parliament on Aug. 30, when the House of Commons denied Prime Minister David Cameron permission to use military force in Syria. Putin, who has consistently opposed Western intervention in the Middle East, feels that the Iraq weapons of mass destruction fiasco and the ambiguous fallout from the Arab Spring have proved him right.
Even the Russian opposition, which typically makes a point of disagreeing with Putin about everything he does, balks at backing U.S. intervention. Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader now running for mayor of Moscow, said that any U.S. action in Syria must be mandated by the United Nations.
Some Russians worry about the geopolitical loss of face a U.S. attack might entail. "That will mean that we have been unable to defend our only ally in the region," retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a foreign policy hawk, said in an interview with the newspaper Evening Moscow. "The nations that do not support the U.S. and pin their hopes on Russia are beginning to worry about being friends with Russia because of the sad logic: Yugoslavia was friends with Russia and it was destroyed, Iraq was friends with Russia and it was destroyed."
That said, Putin might stand to gain if the instability caused by any airstrikes adds a war premium to the price of oil, a major Russian export product and source of revenue for the government budget. "From our point of view, the markets will see a repeat of the 2003 situation following the U.S. and their allies' attack on Iraq," the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted market analyst Alexander Razuvayev as saying. "The oil price will include a war premium, and Brent may rise to $120 or even $130 per barrel."
In the short term, a higher oil price could offset Russia's recent economic slowdown, which some analysts are beginning to call a recession. And if al-Assad does not fall, Russia may yet avoid the downside of diminished weapons exports.
Unable to do anything but wait -- and, possibly, quietly supply al-Assad with weapons -- Putin can play the wise pundit calling on Obama to remember his Nobel Peace Prize. Being cast in that role for once could alone be enough to give the Russian president a warm, fuzzy feeling.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.)