By David Rosenberg

Damascus, Syria

As the Arab League agreed to go to the United Nations Security Council with a resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down, Russia was reportedly doing a major arms deal with the beleaguered regime.

The $550 million agreement to sell 36 Yak-130 combat aircraft will not do anything to tip the balance in favor of the Al-Assad regime, which has been engaged in a 10-month conflict with anti-government opposition. But Russia is almost certainly providing arms Damascus needs to hold back the rebels as well as mounting a diplomatic defense of its friend at the U.N.

In a rare glimpse into the Russia-Syria arms trade, a ship loaded with ammunition from Russia was briefly detained in Cyprus earlier this month before continuing its journey unmolested to the Syrian port of Tartus. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has vowed that Russia will veto any sanctions as "unfair and counterproductive."

"Syria is an important customer for the Russian military industry and the industry is quite keen to maintain the relationship," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow based foreign policy journal Russia in Global Affairs, told The Media Line. "Syria is one of the few remaining customers in the region and it hosts the only military base - a small one but still a base - that Russia still has outside its own borders."

As the West - now joined by the Arab League - presses the Syrian president ever harder, Russia has emerged as his most important ally. Iran also backs the Damascus regime, but Tehran itself faces growing diplomatic isolation over its nuclear program and doesn't wield a Security Council veto. China is opposed to Syrian sanctions, too, but analysts say it is likely to follow whatever line Moscow adopts.

Russia's warm ties with Syria, and more exactly the Al-Assad family regime that has ruled the country four decades, starts with arms sales but it goes much deeper.

In the final two decades of the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union was a superpower competing for global influence with the U.S., Syria was its staunchest ally in the Middle East. Bashar Al-Assad's father and predecessor Hafez armed his troops with Soviet weapons and advanced Moscow's interests in the region.

With the collapse of communism and with Syria's deteriorating economy, the relationship is not what it once was. But Russia maintains a naval base at Tartus and the two governments share a distrust of the West and its motives.

Indeed, the view from Moscow of what is happening in Syria is very different than the one in Washington or Brussels. Where the West sees events in Syria as a popular uprising against a repressive regime, Russia shares Damascus' take, which sees the rebellion as conspiracy by the Gulf countries to bring down an ally of their foe Iran.

"Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others see this as an opportunity, as a chance to push back Iranian influence," Lukyanov said. "From Russia's point of view, it's part of a geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Syria is just a card."

For policymakers in Moscow, the situation in Syria looks remarkably similar to the one in Libya last year, where another long-time friend, Muamar Al-Qaddafi, faced what was seen in the West as a popular rebellion against autocracy. Russia reluctantly agreed not to veto a U.N. decision to impose a no-fly zone over the country.

The resolution, as Russia's leaders understood it, was to prevent Al-Qaddafi from killing civilians with aerial firepower. But the NATO forces that largely enforced the decision, Russians say, used it to level the playing field in the Libyan civil war to Al-Qaddafi's disadvantage. Moscow lost a friend and customer for its arms and is now out of favor with the successor National Transitional Council.

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia, said Russia's Syria policy is driven by memories of its Cold War rivalry with the U.S.

"There's an element of business in the arms deals, but it's mainly a political move to show the flag and to show support for Syria. It's mainly a function of Russian relations with America than with the Syrian regime," Magen told The Media Line.

For that reason - and because Moscow realizes that Al-Assad's days are numbered - it may be prepared to make a deal with the U.S. over Syria, he added.

Nevertheless, analysts agree that the importance of the arms trade as a factor in Moscow's calculations should not be overlooked. In an economy with few other industrial exports, Russia's military industry is an important earner of foreign exchange and a powerful domestic political force.

The Voice of Russia radio's website said in December without citing a source that Russian arms exports reached $11 billion last year, a three-fold increase from 2000. While the country's biggest customers are India and China, the Middle East had been a growing market until the Arab Spring eliminated Al-Qaddafi and sanctions on Iran removed another customer. Syria alone, according to some estimates, accounted for 7 percent of all Russian arms sales in 2010.

A U.S. government study in 2009 estimated Russia's share of the Middle East arms market grew to more than 15 percent in the 2005-2008 period, five percentage points more than in 2001-2004 as it offered more creative financing and payment options, counter-trade, offsets, debt-swapping, and, in some cases, licensing production locally.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported in early December that Russia delivered $300 million of Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria.

With numbers like that, it is no wonder that Sergey Chemezov, the head of the state arms export company Rosoboronexport, made clear he had no intention of halting business with Syria.

"There are no sanctions whatsoever regarding Syria," he told Interfax on Wednesday. "If international sanctions are imposed by the U.N. Security Council, everything will change. And if there are no sanctions, why should we refuse to cooperate with this country? This is business after all."

Nevertheless, Magen said, Russia is careful not to sell Damascus weapons like S-300 surface-to-air missiles that could alter the regional balance of power.


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Russia Emerges as Syria's Most Valuable Ally | Global Viewpoint