Image, strategy at play in Russia-Syria friendship

Image, strategy at play in Russia-Syria friendship
Russian President Vladimir Putin (above).

LONDON - Russian officials have praised their diplomats' success in sponsoring a landmark deal preventing imminent US military action against Syria.

The pact is "a merit of Russian diplomacy", claimed Mr Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian Parliament's foreign affairs committee.

"The military trump card has been knocked straight out of US hands," Mr Pushkov added, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

Yet, neither Mr Pushkov nor any other senior Moscow politician has ever offered a convincing explanation as to why Russia has staked its far more vital relations with the United States on defending Syria, one of the Middle East's poorest states, with no serious oil or gas deposits.

And for good reasons, as the Syrian-Russian link is not just about strategic calculations, but about Russia's image of itself.

Accident has played a large role in forging the Syria-Russia friendship. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the predominant power in the Middle East: its allies included not only Egypt - by far the region's most populous nation - but also the oil-rich countries of Iraq, Libya and Algeria.

Yet, one by one, the Russians were beaten out of the region. Egypt switched its allegiance to the US during the 1970s, other Arab states drifted away from Moscow after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while Western-led interventions overthrew the governments of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Syria is Russia's only remaining ally in the Middle East, and that alone guarantees Moscow's attention.

Nor is it a negligible partner. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which monitors global arms sales, Russia accounts for 78 per cent of Syria's weapons purchases.

The trade is lucrative: between 2007 and 2010 - the last period for which reliable figures are available - Russian arms sales to Syria hit US$4.7 billion (S$5.9 billion), more than twice the figure for the previous four years, according to a study by the US Congressional Research Service.

Syria also hosts Russia's only remaining overseas military base, a naval facility at Tartus on the eastern Mediterranean coast which is increasingly being regarded by President Vladimir Putin as the springboard for a new Russian military revival.

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