Why is Russia so interested in preventing Western intervention in Syria? The first of a two part feature examining the reasons behind Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
To the West, Russian actions towards Syria can seem inexplicable, untrustworthy and trapped in the era of great power politics. In October 1939 Winston Churchill famously quipped ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…’. It seems things have not changed. Churchill offered a potential solution to his own concerns, however. ‘But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interests’. It is apparent that in the last 73 years nothing has changed.
Russian national interests motivate Moscow’s support of Bashar al-Assad, and they are numerous. They include the prospect of future arms sales to the regime and Syrian debt to the Russian state and businesses, debt which might not be honoured if Assad falls. They also include Russian influence in the Middle East and in the wider world, influence that may be bolstered by Russia’s ability to prevent Western intervention at will in the Middle East. Finally, Moscow has an interest in maintaining the international norm of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, an already weakened norm that would be further degraded by Western intervention in Syria. One major interest – an enduring one for Russia – has nevertheless been ignored in media coverage of Russian involvement in the Syrian crisis.
That interest is in maintaining control over the Black Sea. For as long as Russia has existed, it has had an interest in the Black Sea and the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits which control access to it. By extension, it has always had an interest in Anatolia, which straddles this maritime chokepoint. Russia and the Ottoman Empire fought thirteen separate wars from 1568 to 1918, many over control of the Black Sea, as Russia sought to assert its dominance over its southern neighbour. In 1695, Peter the Great used his newly created fleet to attack Ottoman positions and establish his dominance of the Sea of Azov on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Catherine the Great conducted several wars against the Ottomans in the 18th century, securing the Crimea and gaining a further foothold on the Black Sea. In 1827, a combined Anglo-French-Russian fleet decimated the Ottoman fleet at Navarino and in 1828-29 Nicholas I went to war against the Ottoman Empire after it closed the Dardanelles to Russian traffic.
In 1833 he again intervened in Ottoman affairs, this time to protect the Sultan’s government against internal rebellion and thereby secured the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, which provided for closure of the straits in the event of a European war. This secured the Russian coastline in the event of a war against the British and their allies. From 1853-1857, the Crimean War was fought in part because of Nicholas I’s attempts to secure influence over the Ottoman Empire, at expense of the British and French, by becoming the guarantor of all its Orthodox Christian residents. Another war occurred in 1877-1878 as Russia sought to reclaim its access to the Black Sea, severely limited by the treaty ending the Crimean War. Finally, the First World War saw the last war between the two states, but not the end of Russian interest in Anatolia.
When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, however, the ability of Russia to directly manipulate it by force diminished. Russia turned to other methods to guarantee its access through the Bosporus and Dardanelles. It found the means to influence Turkey via Syria. Syria and Turkey had strained relations for much of the 20th century resulting from such things as water rights, Syrian support for Kurdish rebels and the secular nature of the Turkish government, and the USSR sought to exploit this for its own benefit. Aid to Syria, already an associate of Moscow, increased significantly in the mid- to late-1950s. Significant aid flows continued for the duration of the Cold War, even as regimes in Syria changed.
In 1971, the same year of Hafez al-Assad’s first visit to Moscow, the Soviet Union concluded a deal with Syria to establish a naval base at Tartus, in direct challenge to the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s dominance of the Mediterranean. By establishing a presence in the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union pushed a potential battlefield with the United States further from its borders. With the end of the Cold War, the naval rivalry which prompted such manoeuvres disappeared, but Russia’s attempts to influence its neighbours did not; Syrian aid continued to flow unabated.
In 2009, by decree of then President Medvedev, Russia established its National Security Strategy to 2020. The main objectives of this strategy are the ‘sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, and likewise the preservation of civil peace, political and social stability’. To achieve these objectives Russia must guarantee the security of its borders, which requires a degree of influence over its neighbours, either through cooperative measures or otherwise. In that vein, arms sales and economic assistance to Syria have continued to this day. These provide Russia some influence over the Assad regime and, it is hoped, some indirectly over Turkey. This influence, and the control it helps give Russia over the Black Sea, is a key factor explaining Russia’s actions in the Syrian crisis. Its actions regarding Syria fit into a broader pattern of manoeuvres designed to secure Russian control over the Black Sea, and thereby guarantee the security of Russia’s borders.
Read the second part here.
 Robert Heinl (1966), Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations, (U.S. Naval Institute), p. 283.
 Andrej Kreutz (2007), ‘Russia and the Mediterranean Countries of the Arab East’, In Russia in the Middle East: Friend or Foe?, (Praeger Security International), http://psi.praeger.com/doc.aspx?d=/books/gpg/C9328/C9328-62.xml (accessed 16 July 2012); Dmitri Trenin, ‘Why Russia Supports Assad’, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/opinion/why-russia-supports-assad.html?_r=3&partner=rss&emc=rss (accessed 16 July 2012).
 Mark Katz mentions the relationship between the Tartus base and the Dardanelles and Bosporus, but argues that the base is designed to facilitate Russian power projection, rather than secure control of the Straits as an end in and of itself. See http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/10/moscows_marines_head_for_syria?page=full (accessed 16 July 2012).
 Kreutz (2007).
 http://rustrans.wikidot.com/russia-s-national-security-strategy-to-2020. See paragraph 35 (accessed 16 July 2012)