Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Greece could replace Syria as Russia’s Mediterranean friend

by Ian Bremmer

Financial Times

March 21, 2012

Why is Russia so adamant in defence of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Much to the consternation of US and European officials, Moscow has blocked efforts within the UN Security Council to sanction and further isolate the Syrian regime. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov says his government feels burned by the way Nato used a resolution on Libya to bomb Muammar Gaddafi last year. That’s not credible. Mr Lavrov is an experienced diplomat who served ably as his country’s ambassador to the UN. He knows precisely how the language of a security council resolution is crafted-and how it can be interpreted.

No, Russia protects Mr Assad because Moscow needs his government right where it is. Syria is Russia’s most reliable Middle Eastern commercial partner. In fact, Mr Assad, like his father before him, buys most of his country’s military hardware from Moscow. Over the years, father and son have taken on considerable debt in the process. Russia forgave about 75 per cent of those obligations in 2006 in exchange for Russian use of Syria’s Mediterranean naval bases at Latakia and Tartus. For Russia, access to a Mediterranean port holds considerable strategic value.

The Russian government has invested heavily in long-term plans for both sites, using Latakia as a submarine base and hopes to add the space and capacity to use Tartus for missile cruisers. The Russians apparently fear that the loss of Mr Assad could mean the loss of these valuable Mediterranean ports.

Are they right? We’re likely to find out. Mr Assad has so far survived the increasingly violent challenge from his country’s rebels. Defections from his army have been limited. The country’s business elite, based mainly in Damascus and Aleppo, have yet to abandon him. But as his regime becomes increasingly isolated, Russia’s protection and the regime’s willingness to hang onto power by any means necessary probably won’t be enough. Mr Assad’s days are likely numbered, and Syria’s next government may not be favorably disposed toward Moscow.

So where can Russia turn to maintain a Mediterranean base for its navy? How about Greece? Political officials in Germany and other core EU countries should take note.


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