Small Wars Journal

Why Russia Supports Syria

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 8:13pm

Why Russia Supports Syria

James Steels


The Syrian crisis has been raging on since March 2011 when civil disorder erupted within the country influenced by the wider regional ‘Arab Spring’. This has since escalated into a full blown civil war in which so far the United Nations has estimated that over 100,000 (1) people have died. In August 2012 President Obama announced that the use of chemical weapons in this Syrian conflict would be a ‘Red Line’ for the United States. In December 2013 the U.N. confirmed that chemical weapons have indeed been used. Prior to this in the ensuing political chaos that followed, caused by the United States failure to ascertain what exactly its red line was or what its response would be, Russia seized on the opportunity and took the initiative, lead by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to gain the political upper hand against the United States in the region and to spotlight their international support for the Syrian regime.


With the West, Saudi Arabia and the U.N. looking for a resolution to this conflict, that certainly involves the removal of Syrian President Bashir al Assad, why is Russia going against popular international opinion and supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad?

Economics:  Russia has around a total of just over $19 Billion dollars (2) worth of investments in Syria and like most other countries or business in this position it has a natural interest in looking after its investments. Most of this is tied up in the Syrian Petrol, Oil and Gas industries and infrastructures. Thanks largely to Russia’s own huge natural resources it has become vastly wealthy off the back of such commodities. In fact, natural energy resources account for an entire 30% of Russia’s GDP (3) amounting to $215 Billion dollars (4) worth of export income. With such a strategic interest in this field it is easy to see why Russia has an extra interest in safeguarding its natural energy investments whether domestic or foreign.  Another economic interest that ties Russia with Syria is its arms industry. As of 2012 Russia has annual arms exports worth $10 Billion dollars(5). $4 Billion dollars (6) of this alone was arms deals to Syria helping to place Russia 2nd in the world’s top arms exporters (7). In comparison, this $4 Billion dollars worth of arms exports to Syria matches the whole entire defence exports of France and the UK and exceeds that of Germany ($3bn) (8).  In the field of International Relations such an amount of investments and income between two countries is considered very high which helps to explain Russia’s position of support with Syria and its interest in maintaining it that way.

Military:  As well as its arms exports Russia has a physical footprint in Syria by way of its military naval facility in the Syrian town of Tartus located on the Mediterranean coastline. Opened in 1971 during the height of the cold war it served to support the Soviet Black Sea Fleet in the Mediterranean as Russia sought to expand its global influence in the face of growing international American power. To this day, with the exception of former Soviet Bloc countries such as Ukraine, this remains the only foreign military base in the entire world that Russia has.  Therefore not only does it represent Russia’s only global expansion it also allows Russia to maintain a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean.  Although a small facility by military standards it remains a key part of Russia’s attempt to project its military on an international scale. For example in December 2007 (9) Russia conducted major naval drills with a carrier based battle group in the Mediterranean Sea.  Such a large scale deployment far from any home ports was made possible with Tartus providing a fuel and supply line depot. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has become increasingly strategically important to Russia with providing a military capability in the region with recent events such as its internal conflicts in the Caucasus region, its 2008 conflict with Georgia and also as the area grows in importance as a major oil transit route. The major problem with the geography of this area is that Russia relies on access routes to and from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean via the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits which are controlled by Turkey. On the face of it this does not seem to be a problem however when you take into account that Turkey is a member of NATO and has the military capability to deny access to and to shut down this vital access route it provides another reason to prove that Russia’s relations with Syria and its current regime is of immense political value. 

Geopolitics:  Quite simply, like a game of chess, Russia seeks to block America at every available opportunity. Although a whole entire   book would be needed to cover U.S.-Russian relations here we will briefly look at a few key points. Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union after the cold war Russia has increasingly seen its borders shrink and an ever expanding NATO encroaching further and further onto its doorstep. Humiliated by its defeat of the cold war it has seen key parts of its former empire lost to the European Union while it struggles to maintain unity in areas such as Chechnya. America’s attempt to bring into NATO former breakaway republics such as Ukraine and Georgia has further exacerbated and strained relations. In 2002 President George W Bush controversially withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and made plans to place highly advanced and sophisticated Ground Based Interceptor missiles right on Russia’s borders in countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Although such missile defence shields are developed in mind with the threat of ICBM’s from Iran such a provocative move again further strained already tense relations.  In 2012 the United States intervened in the Libyan crisis with airstrikes against the Qaddafi regime. Such Western intervention was opposed by Russia however they allowed such strikes to go ahead by abstaining from the United Nation’s Security Council vote on the understanding that the strikes would be limited, not targeting Qaddafi himself and served to provide a wider humanitarian agenda in the country. When the American led air strikes spread out to a wider variety of targets and ultimately ended with the direct role played in the highly publicized, and bloody, death of Colonel Qaddafi Russia was left feeling betrayed by the United States and was determined not to make the same mistakes again with subsequent votes on action in Syria. (10)


In August 2013 the United States was poised to conduct airstrikes on regime targets inside Syria as punishment for the use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately due to President Obama politically mishandling the action of these airstrikes the window of opportunity evaporated very quickly. With still no end in sight to the conflict in Syria and the growing violence American physical intervention in Syria is now ‘off the table’. Russia continues to grow stronger with its influence in the region by taking the lead in overseeing the disposal of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, which as of February 2014, are still currently ongoing. From its position of weakness any action now that the United States wishes to take with any physical intervention in Syria will have to go through the U.N and, as long as Russia remains a permanent member of the Security Council and has its current position of strength in this region, this now seems very unlikely.


(1), 21st February 2014, ‘Highlights of the Noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy spokesperson for the Secretary-General’ accessed 23/02/2014

(2), 2nd September 2011, ‘Billions of dollars of Russian businesses suffers along with Syria’, accessed 02/02/2014

(3) (4), 29th May 2013, ‘The political economy of Russian oil and gas’, accessed 02/02/2014

(5) (6) (7) (8), Jun. 25, 2013, ‘Israel ranks as the world’s sixth largest arms exporter in 2012’, accessed 06/02/2014

(9), 17th December 2007, ‘Russia: A Major Mediterranean Deployment’, accessed 13/02/2014

(10) Supported by material from ‘Duty- Memoirs of a Secretary at War’ by Gates, R M, Published in the UK by WH Allen, 2014,

About the Author(s)

James Steels is a British defence intelligence analyst focusing on Russia and East Asia defence analysis as well as international security. He holds a HNC in Terrorism Studies from St. Andrews University and is completing a MSc in Intelligence and Security Studies from Liverpool John Moores University.



Thu, 04/17/2014 - 9:11pm

In agreement with Ned McDonnell III's comment, a great concise analysis about the side that perhaps we don't see or aren't aware of. This has certainly put a lot of the issues into context for me. I look forward to similar pieces.

Ned McDonnell III

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 3:16pm

A concise and timely review of the devil's pact between Russia and Assad. While these factors are evident, their inter-play is not. The statistic that says it all for me is that Russia has sent $4 billion of weapons to Syria. That is a level 3x the amount the U.S. gives to Egypt (a country in a volatile neighborhood with 3x the population). Humanitarian aid, much of which is not getting through, is hardly an adequate response to the lethal flow of weapons from the East.