The guns have barely fallen silent in the conflict between Georgia and Russia. The two sides are still squabbling over the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. Yet that didn’t stop President Bashar Al Assad of Syria from becoming the first head of state to visit Russia, where he declared his unyielding support for Moscow’s position regarding Georgia. “We understand Russia’s stance regarding the breakaway regions and understand that it came in retaliation to Georgian provocation,” he said.
Even more interesting was his follow-up statement: “We oppose any attempt to harm Russia’s position.” He even went as far as to generously offer to host Russian ground-to-ground missiles in his country.
Assad could see that Western demands for Russia to withdraw its forces from South Ossetia — and the recent agreement between Poland and the U.S. to place an anti -missile shield on Polish territory — are worrying Russia. Russia is concerned that the West, especially the U.S., is using every opportunity to undermine its position. Some Russians have gone as far as to view Georgia’s provocative decision to send its forces into South Ossetia as a Western-sponsored trap, meant to lure Russia into a conflict. The West would then use Russia’s response as justification for the expansion of NATO in the Caucasus, as well as in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. Both are very sensitive points for Moscow.
By throwing in his lot completely with Russia, Assad obviously hoped that he could use the current anti-Western sentiment in Moscow as capital to finance Russia’s support — both militarily and politically — for Syria and its position.
The purpose of his visit and supporting statement was clear. He was basically insinuating to the Russians:
Like it or not, the West has declared a new Cold War against you, and you must respond. I am willing to help you, if you are willing to reciprocate, by giving me the weapons I need, and by using your presence in the Middle East to scare the Americans and the Israelis who are undermining my position.
The motivations of his strategy are understandable. Unlike his father, when Bashar became president he did not have the support of the Soviet superpower. This made the job of purchasing sophisticated weaponry to counter that of Israel much more difficult. The loss of the Soviet Union as a backer also meant that Damascus lost a powerful ally on the international stage, especially in the UN. Although Syria consolidated power in the Middle East through its alliance with Hezbollah and Iran, on a global scale the country remains isolated, with no prospect of the U.S. or the EU giving their support as the USSR once did. Furthermore, the country’s present economic situation under Bashar is far worse than when his father was in charge. Back then, Syria was earning 80% of its income from oil. Now, due to dwindling resources, this figure is down to 20%. The same goes for water resources. There are reports from Damascus that repeated, lengthy cuts in water supply are making life for its citizens extremely difficult, especially in the summer heat.
Despite his efforts, it is unlikely that Assad can get the Cold War revival that he seeks. First and foremost, Russia of 2008 is far more different than Russia of 1988. Its economy is far more intertwined and dependent on Western capital and trade. This was demonstrated recently when foreign investors pulled their money out of Russia in the wake of the Georgia conflict at the fastest rate since the 1998 ruble crisis. According to the Financial Times, Russian foreign currency reserves dropped by $16.4 billion in the fist week of the conflict with Georgia. This was one of the largest absolute weekly drops in ten years, which put pressure on the ruble and on foreign confidence in the Russian economy.
These days, thanks to trade with the West and high energy prices, Russians are used to the good life. “If the Georgians were smart, instead of attacking South Ossetia, all they needed to do was to threaten to bomb the Gucci shop in Moscow,” quipped a Russian businessman I know, who travels regularly between Israel and Russia. “Russians would have agreed to their annexation of South Ossetia in no time.”
Joking aside, Russia’s leadership is all too aware that economic misery could cost them votes and popularity at home. This is why they will not allow their relations with the EU and the U.S. to deteriorate too drastically by entering into another Cold War.
Unfortunately for Assad, the same goes for Russia’s relations with Israel. Level of trade and diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel, compared to the days of the USSR, have increased astronomically. Russia now hosts hundreds of thousands of its citizens who lived in Israel, have Israeli passports, and are now back living in their land of birth. Many more of its citizens live in Israel. Israeli companies have offices and have invested in the Russian economy,. They have also been instrumental in the high tech and jewelery industry. Today, Russians visit Israel in record numbers. The level of bilateral trade between them is estimated to stand at more than $2 billion — and is rising. Russia would have very little to gain by supporting Syria, at the cost of making Israel into its enemy. Furthermore, with the emergence of China as a superpower, maintaining relations with as many sides as possible is considered crucial to Moscow’s foreign policy.
Russia’s cold shoulder to Syria’s hopes for a new Cold War should not worry Iran too much. Its case is different than that of Damascus. Tehran has much larger gas and oil reserves. For now, its economic situations is not dire as Syria’s is. Furthermore, China supports Russia’s stance in the UN vis a vis the Iranian nuclear program. This means that Russia does not have to make any dramatic changes in its relations with Tehran. Even though they would prefer it, Iran’s leadership can live comfortably without a Cold War between Russia and the West. For Syria’s leader, it will be much more difficult.