Parallels
7:50 am
Wed August 28, 2013

Who Are Syria's Friends And Why Are They Supporting Assad?

Originally published on Sun September 1, 2013 6:33 am

While much of the world is lining up against Syria, the country is not entirely friendless, and it's hoping its allies can provide at least some cover in the confrontation over its apparent use of chemical weapons.

Russia and China are almost certain to block any U.N. resolution that could be used to authorize force against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The two countries, along with Iran, are helping Syria "politically, militarily — and also economically," in the words of Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Kadri Jamil.

What are the motivations of Syria's friends and what are they likely to do in the face of seemingly imminent Western-led strikes on Syria? Here's a look:

Russia

Moscow has long-standing strategic and financial interests in Syria.

Syria hosts a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, and contracts for Russian weapons sales to Syria — those signed and those under discussion — total $5 billion.

Moscow believes Western military intervention would not only infringe on Syria's sovereignty, but it would also create instability across the region.

"Russia's position is very easy to understand," says Andranik Migranyan, director of the New York-based Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a nongovernmental organization funded by private Russian donors that is considered close to the leadership in Moscow.

"First, Russia is against any regime change from outside of Syria or any other country because according to Russia, any attempt to change the regimes, they are ended up in a chaos and results are quite opposite what were the intentions," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "This was proved in Iraq after the invasions of Americans over there. This was proved in Libya. This was proved in Egypt. And Russia is against principally this regime changes.

"And second, Russia would like to know, OK, Bashar al-Assad has to go. But who is coming next?" he says.

Daniel Treisman, a professor at UCLA, says the Kremlin's greatest fear is instability in the Middle East and Central Asia.

"Russian policymakers already worry about the northward spread of Islamic militancy and opium if the departure of NATO from Afghanistan leads to Taliban resurgence and state collapse," he wrote recently.

China

China and Syria have close trade links, but that isn't the only reason Beijing opposes Western intervention.

"The Chinese historically never supported external intervention and particularly the use of force against a regime," says Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

China might also have been burned by the intervention in Libya. Neither Beijing nor Moscow vetoed the U.N. resolution that eventually led to a NATO-led military intervention, which led to the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi. China believed that action went beyond the resolution's mandate.

China will continue to support Assad "until it becomes clear that the wind was blowing the other way," Glasser says.

"If the regime falls," she adds, "then the Chinese will quickly become silent."

Iran

Iran has few allies in the Arab world and its most important one is Syria. Their relationship dates back to the years after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

As the BBC notes:

"They needed to come together to fight their common rival, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. They also allied in order to check Israeli advances into Lebanon and to prevent any American attempts to enter the Middle East.

"Each provided support to the Lebanese armed movement Hezbollah and to the Palestinian armed groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"Syria has consistently provided Iran with an element of strategic depth. It gives Iran access to the Mediterranean and a supply line to Iran's Shia Muslim supporters in southern Lebanon next to the border with Israel."

Losing this support, the BBC adds, would be a blow to Iran.

Iran has supported the Assad government with weapons in the current conflict, and Iranians are fighting on Assad's side.

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, said last week that chemical weapons had, in fact, been used in Syria. He did not attribute blame, but tweeted:

Hezbollah

The Shiite militant group is the strongest military force inside Lebanon. It's also a close Assad ally, and its leader pledged support to the embattled Syrian leader.

Syria is the main conduit for weapons to the group, whose members are fighting alongside Assad's troops in the civil war.

As the Council on Foreign Relations noted: "Western and Israeli analysts fear that Hezbollah fighters, armed with sophisticated Iranian missiles, may tip the balance on the battlefield against Sunni rebels. In June, more than a thousand Hezbollah fighters helped Syrian forces retake the strategic city of Qusayr."

Hezbollah depends on Syria for its arms flow from Iran, but as Beirut-based Al Akhbar notes, that's not the only reason the Shiite group supports Assad:

"Hezbollah's staunch defense of the Assad regime at the most inopportune of times must be viewed against the backdrop of the regional struggle between the 'nationalist and resistance project' led by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, otherwise known as the 'jabhit al mumana'a' ('resistance axis' as it is dubbed in the West) and the 'US project' pursued by the US' Arab allies who comprise the so-called 'moderate axis'. Viewed within this broader regional context, Syria's strategic value does not merely lie in its arms' supply role, but derives from its status as the Arab linchpin of the resistance front, or to borrow [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah's words, 'the only resistance regime in the region.' "

In other words: Hezbollah views any threat to the Assad regime as a threat not only to Syria, but also the Palestinians and Lebanon.

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