OSC: Russia Seeks Political, Economic Dividends from Syria Ties

The USG Open Source Center analyzes Russia’s renewed ties of patronage with Syria. The analysts look at arms sales, energy deals and port access for the Russian navy, among other dimensions of the relationship, and also trace the ways in which Russia has attempted to defend Syria in international forums.

OSC Analysis 15 Nov: Russia Seeks Political, Economic Dividends from Syria Ties
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Russia-Syria: Russia Seeking Political, Economic ‘Dividends’ from Syria Ties.

Trying to recover some of its former geopolitical influence in the Middle East, in recent years Russia has been repeatedly defending Syria and attempting to expand its role in the Middle East peace process. In its relations with Damascus, Moscow has focused on the development of economic cooperation but may also be trying to enhance its military presence in the Mediterranean using its longtime naval supply base in Syria. . .

Despite the United States’ inclusion of Syria on its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism . . . Moscow has consistently championed Damascus in the face of international censure and attack. Senior Russian officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of stability in the Middle East, arguing that their cooperation with Damascus promotes security in the region and avoids isolating the Syrian regime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opposed the imposition of sanctions on Syria over the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri as “illogical” and “unprofessional” (Interfax, 27 October 2005), and in 2007 Russia abstained from a UN Security Council vote on a resolution to set up a tribunal to try Al-Hariri’s killers.(1) Russia’s permanent UN representative Vitaliy Churkin highlighted “significant legal flaws” in the text of the resolution (ITAR-TASS, 30 May).

Russia’s Foreign Ministry condemned an Israeli air raid on Syria as “unacceptable under all international law” and stressed Moscow’s “extreme anxiety” (www.mid.ru, 6 September). Commentator Vitaliy Portnikov described Russia’s reaction to this incursion as “unprecedented” (Politkom.ru, 21 September).

At the United Nations, Lavrov opposed Syria’s possible “exclusion and isolation” from a proposed Middle East peace conference, arguing that “we will achieve more” by pursuing a “policy of involvement” (ITAR-TASS, 24 September). He had previously argued that the region’s problems should be resolved by involving all countries concerned and not by isolating any of them (Russia Profile, 27 December 2006).

During a working visit to Syria, Russian General Staff chief Yuriy Baluyevskiy emphasized that the two countries’ “active” military-technical cooperation “only strengthens stability in the region” (RIA Novosti, 31 January 2006). Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov hailed Moscow’s policy on the Middle East as the “most consistent and productive” and described Syria as the “most important” of the “main political forces in the region” who need to be involved in “stabilization” (Newsru.com, 20 December 2006). Russia Seeks Influence Via Syria Ties

Russian commentators and senior officials have highlighted the merits of reviving the close Soviet-era relationship with Syria. They have argued that friendship with Damascus will help Moscow restore Russia’s “superpower status” in international politics.

The then defense minister, Sergey Ivanov, stressed that the Middle East is “crucially important” for Russian “geopolitical and economic interests” and cooperation with Syria brings “tangible economic and political dividends” (Izvestiya, 9 November 2006).
Popular news website Dni.ru hypothesized that, by acting as Syria’s “sponsor” in the international arena and becoming President Bashar al-Asad’s “sole indispensable friend,” Moscow hoped to assume the role of “principal patron” of Syrian-Israeli dialogue. It opined that influence over Syria would facilitate Russia’s returning to the Middle East as a “real player, rather than a supernumerary.” Moreover, it argued that Moscow had adeptly presented its rapprochement with Syria not as a bid to bolster its own position but as a desire to resolve global problems (24 January 2005).

Portnikov argued, in the light of an information leak regarding a potential sale of Russian missiles to Syria, that Moscow’s motivation for this move would be “to demonstrate that there is life in the old dog yet, that Russia, relying on old allies, is capable of influencing world political processes” (Politkom.ru, 24 January 2005).

Moscow officials and observers suggest Russia is seeking to use its ties with Syria to boost Russia’s position in the Middle East peace process.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Sultanov asserted during a visit to Syria that Russia is concerned with ending the “difficult” situation in the region and restoring stability to pave the way for a “comprehensive peace” (SANA, 13 September).
Popular Internet news site Newsru.com suggested that, given its long-standing ties in the Middle East, Russia could provide the “effective levers” for influencing Syria that the Israeli leadership needs in its quest for a settlement. Newsru.com concluded that “some kind of diplomatic success in the region would not hurt Moscow” (20 December 2006).

Internet site Polit.ru, which features news updates and commentaries, declared that the threat of civil war in Lebanon involving outside forces such as Syria and Israel had resulted in a situation where Moscow wanted to make its presence felt as a “real force” capable of unblocking the crisis. It argued that Syria, an Arab League member, could also give Russia “considerable backing” in its bid to boost its status in the region (5 April 2007). Moscow Expands Economic Ties

Both Syrian and Russian commentators have argued Russia has been expanding economic ties. Tishrin, a Syrian Government-owned paper, said that Moscow’s decision to write off the bulk of Syria’s $13.4-billion Soviet-era debt after Al-Asad’s visit to Moscow in January 2005 “served the interests of the two countries and opens the door wide” for the development of ties in other fields. An editorial in government-owned Al-Thawrah pointed out that the debt problem was “one of the obstacles” to Syrian-Russian relations in the previous decade. Moreover, Moscow allowed Damascus to repay the remainder of the loan on extremely favorable terms (27 January).

Russian weekly Internet paper Rossiyskiye Vesti, which is connected to the Presidential Staff and other government bodies, highlighted the “realism and pragmatism” of Russia’s Syria policy. It argued that for Russia the Middle East is “primarily an extremely promising market rather than an arena for military-political confrontation” and that is why Moscow “invariably wants to play the role of a peacemaker” in the region (20-27 December 2006).

Russian firms have invested heavily in the country since the Iraq war, after which several Russian companies lost contracts in Iraq. The Russian companies keen to work in Syria are often the same oil and gas, construction, and commercial firms that operated in Saddam Husayn’s Iraq. For example, Stroytransgaz, Russia’s largest oil and gas construction firm, has won a series of preferential contracts with Syrian firms.

Stroytransgaz signed a 160-million-euro contract to build a gas refinery in the north of Syria’s Palmyra plateau following the fifth session of the Russian-Syrian Commission for Trade and Economic and Scientific and Technical Cooperation in late-April 2007. Vladimir Naumenko, head of the Damascus branch of Stroytransgaz, pointed out that the contract was drawn up without going to tender, which he argued indicated the Syrian Government’s “eminent confidence in the Russian company.” He predicted that his company would win tenders to build another two gas installations in Syria (Vzglyad, Vesti.ru, 27 April).

The Syrian Government has ratified a deal with Stroytransgaz to build a $220-million natural gas processing plant with a capacity of 1.1 billion cubic meters per year. The project was not put out to tender prior to the deal (RIA Novosti, 24 October).

Stroytransgaz also won tenders to build the pan-Arabian and Kirkuk-Banyas gas pipelines in Syria and an oil refinery involving total investment of over $2.5 billion (www.rsds.ru, May 2006).

Other Russian oil and gas firms have also invested heavily in Syria.

Volgogradneftemash, one of Russia’s largest producers of equipment for the oil, gas, and chemical industries, is working on a December 2006 contract to supply the Syrian Gas Company with various items of specialist equipment for a gas refinery under construction in Hims (Promyshlennyye Novosti, 6 March).

Russia’s Tatneft oil company and the Syrian State Oil Company signed a production-sharing contract in March 2005 giving them exclusive rights to geological prospecting and oil and gas extraction in the 1,900-square-kilometer Sector No. 27 of the Al-Bu-Kamal region of Dayr al-Zawr Province in eastern Syria (Vzglyad, 8 November 2005). Tatneft set up a branch of Tatneft Exploration & Production International in Syria and planned to drill an exploratory well in 2007 (www.tatneft.ru, no date given).

Russia has also agreed on cooperation with Syria in the sphere of power generation, as well as technology and fertilizers.

Russia signed contracts in April 2005 to build the Khalyabiyah-Zalyabiyah HEP station on the Euphrates, modernize the Maskanah irrigation system, and erect a series of 20 dams on the coast (Newspo.ru, Energopower.ru, 3 April 2005).

Russia’s Tekhpromeksport energy construction firm, in consortium with Power Machines (Silovyye Mashiny), won a contract to increase the capacity of the Tishrin thermal power station, which the company had converted to gas in 1996. Alfa-Bank analyst Aleksandr Kornilov estimated the deal to be worth at least $200 million (RBCdaily, 12 April 2006).
Syrian Ambassador to Russia Hassan Rishah announced the two countries’ plans to cooperate in the field of high technology to mark the 20th anniversary of their joint space flight. He suggested that the two countries could set up a “technopolis” for scientific research and the development of new technology. He stressed that relations between the two countries are developing “extremely dynamically” and hoped that trade turnover would top $1 billion in 2007 (www.nkau.gov.ua, 25 July).

Russia’s FosAgro fertilizer manufacturer expressed readiness to invest in the development of fertilizer and concentrated fodder production in Syria during an 8 October meeting with Syrian Agricultural and Agrarian Reform Minister Adil Safar (Syria News, SANA, 10 October). Russia Seeks Renewed Naval Role in Mediterranean

In addition to expanding economic and political ties, there are signs Russia may use its longtime naval supply base in the Syrian port of Tartus to increase its naval presence in the Mediterranean.

Mikhail Nenashev, chairman of the Russian Movement in Support of the Navy, stressed that Tartus should be the “center of our presence in the region” after Navy Commander in Chief Admiral Vladimir Masorin called for Russia to revive a permanent presence in the Mediterranean (Edinros.ru, 6 August).

Moscow began work to expand the port of Latakia, which “may indicate that Russia views Syria as a bridgehead to increase its influence in the Middle East” (Kommersant, 2 June 2006). An anonymous source cited by opposition website Grani.ru confirmed that Moscow intends to form a squadron of warships over the coming three years to operate permanently in the Mediterranean and enable Russia to ensure Syria’s security (2 June 2006).

Independent weekly military newspaper Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye suggested that Damascus may have agreed to the expansion of Russia’s military presence in the region in return for arms shipments (1 December 2006).

Some Israeli media also suggested Moscow aims to enhance its military ties. The Jerusalem Post, a right-of-center independent Israeli daily, suggested that the Tartus base could become a “new home” for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet following its redeployment from Sevastopol. It further argued that Tartus “allows projection of Russian power into the entire eastern Mediterranean and, by extension, a flexing of military might before Israel and the West” (31 August).

Tel Aviv’s independent Ma’ariv paper claimed that Russian advisers have been “upgrading” monitoring equipment used by Syrian intelligence against Israel and improving Syrian Army electronic warfare capabilities (31 August).

In contrast, some Russian experts assert that Moscow’s plans are unlikely to come to fruition any time soon. Former Black Sea Fleet commander, Adm. Eduard Baltin said that “Only the Soviet Navy had
the means to maintain a rapid deployment group of ships in the Mediterranean” and that Russians “only have the capability to maintain a military-political presence in the region” (Kommersant.com, 6 August). . . ‘

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