Fri Aug 12, 2022
August 12, 2022

Why Does Putin Support Assad?

After the beginning of the war in Syria, Russia has returned to appear in the leading newspapers and the media in the world alongside the U.S., something that has not happened since the fall of the USSR.

Although it is evident the common aspiration of Obama and Putin for “stabilizing the situation” in Syria (i.e. to stop the revolution), there are important differences between their positions. To understand them, it is necessary to analyze the special relationship that Russia keeps with Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

Syria and the USSR

The special relationship between Russia and Syria dates back to the time of the USSR. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Arab nationalist bourgeois parties took power in several Middle Eastern countries, taking advantage of the wave of popular anti-imperialist mobilizations. One of the most important was the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party (Ba’ath), which took power in Syria.

To solve the most basic economic and social contradictions arising from the semi-colonial character of economies and to control the anti-imperialist movement, the Arab nationalist regimes were forced to undertake nationalization. For this reason, their relationship with imperialism became quite damaged.

Imperialism has responded by creating trade restrictions with these countries, seeking to exclude them from the international division of labor, which meant serious consequences for these backward capitalist economies, completely dependent on the world market, unable to form a sound production system. They lacked the technology and capital, equipment and financial funds. Imperialism has thus applied to his own way, the thesis of the Fourth International which states that in the backward countries the national bourgeoisies either submits completely to imperialism or may not exist.

Arab leaders were thus sandwiched underneath, by the anti-imperialist pressure, and, above, by imperialism. The economic backwardness and its utterly bourgeois program have found the only way out in drawing closer to the Soviet bureaucracy in the USSR, which could provide the economic resources required (equipment and technology). In exchange, the Soviet bureaucracy received from the Arab “friendly governments” important “political services”, which allowed it to negotiate better terms with imperialism. The CPSU bureaucracy had similar agreements with many non-Arab bourgeois governments. But the closest and longest relationship was formed with the Syrian Baath regime.

The USSR participated, through its state-owned enterprises, of the of oil and gas industry development (exploration and maintenance of mines), the construction of hydroelectric power plants and energy transmission lines of the agriculture (irrigation systems, fertilizer industry), water supply companies, railroads, etc.. That is, the basic components of infrastructure required for the Syrian economy.

It is worth mentioning that most of these projects resulted in direct financial losses to the Soviet bureaucracy. They were political non-profit-oriented investment aimed at keeping the regimes in its “orbit” in order to have better political conditions in the dispute with the imperialism.

However the weapons are the ones that play the most important role in the relationship between the CPSU and the Syrian Baath. The total cost of the Soviet weapons supply to Syria between the decades of 1960 and 1980 exceeds 26 billion dollars and the proportion of Soviet weapons in the Syrian army reached 90%[1]. An important part of such weapons was supplied as credit and the total debt of Syria with the Soviet Union reached nearly 14 billion dollars in 1991.

However the meaning of this debt was quite different from the capitalist debts. The Syrian regime was aware that it would not have to pay off the “socialist indebtedness”, and that it should, in return be a “progressive government”, i.e. to support the Soviet bureaucracy policy in the world. Meanwhile, the Soviet bureaucracy was aware that if one day the “friend regime” stopped being “friend” to return to the influence orbit of the imperialism, it wouldn’t also be worried about paying the indebtedness.

On a financial perspective, the Syrian debt to the former USSR has never assumed large interest rates or a mechanism for recovering it, so it was not exactly a “debt”. But beyond it there was the Syrian army deep technological dependence from Soviet weapons, which implies the dependence of machine maintenance, supply parts, accessories and even the education of Syrian officials in the USSR. The Syrian regime has always kept a relationship with imperialism, but in a situation where the Armed Forces dependentof the Soviet weapons were the regime central institution, wecan speak of a structural political dependence.

Naval military bases in Latakiaand Tartus have assured the permanence of the USSR fleet in the Mediterranean Sea (up to 80 vessels at the border with Israel) and were the “garnish” of the bureaucracy political construction. Thus, Syria was the great bet of the CPSU policy in the Middle East.

Syria and Russia

Russia has inherited this kind of dependence of the Syrian regime. But with the capitalist restoration in the former USSR, an extremely deep economic crisis has begun. The funds for foreign projects had run over. The defeat of the 1991 military coup, settled in Russia a predominately parliamentary regime, where the institutions of the Army and the KGB no longer played the same role as they used to do before. On the other hand, the power has been taken over by the most pro-imperialist sector of the former Soviet bureaucracy, headed up by Yeltsin, whose government had, clearly and openly, CIA agents as counselors to Russian ministers. Accordingly, the relations with Syria have been reduced almost up to zero.

Circumstances have changed in the early 2000s. On the one hand, in Russia, in face ofthe social protests exhaustion and the resistance defeat in Chechnya, it  took place a political rematch of the KGB bureaucracy (now FSB) and the Army, that have always campaigned for “the return of historical allies”.  Relying largely on this sector the Bonapartist regime of Putin was settled and under his leadership the Russian oligarchs and the bureaucracy were politically consolidated. Putin monopolized the legal political space, driving out the liberal parties, the direct agents of imperialism, and he has postulated himself as the only reference to engage in dialogue with imperialism within Russia.

On the other hand, the imperialism, during Bush times, started the policy of “war on terror” and for the “new American century”. In this context, Syria was included as part of the “axis of evil” for its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and was subjected to sanctions. It is noteworthy that the “war on terror” defeat, the change of the imperialism tactics, expressed in Obama’s rise, although it has abandoned the possibility of a direct attack on Syria, they have not loosened the sanctions on the contrary, they have strengthened them .

All this pushed the Russian and Syrian regimes to move closer as from their old ties. The “isolation” of Syria, which also must not be overestimated, has created more opportunities for the participation of Russian companies in its economy. The Russian oil and gas companies now participate aiming at the profit in the exploration and extraction of oil, refineries construction, power energy projects (it was also thought about a project for nuclear power plant), irrigation systems, equipment sales for oil and energy industry, telecommunications development (including the GLONASS system, a Russian similar of the US GPS). That is, they have worked in the old traditional sectors.

However, the same way as it happened at the time of the USSR, these economic projects were limited. Before the war and the revolution, it produced only 22% of the electricity with the Russian investments, and the Soviet record of 27% has never been surpassed on the oil participation and extraction (Evseev VV).

It is not difficult to find this same level of Russian investments participation in the entire territory of the former USSR. This is not little, but it is insufficient to conditioning the inflexible position of the Russian regime in defense of Assad. The economic projects remain quite secondary to the crucial point, namely, the weapons provision, where Putin and Assad have a much deeper “mutual understanding”.

In 2005, Russia suspended US$ 10 billion of Syrian indebtedness (73%) in exchange of new contracts of weaponspurchase,which were, for several years, US$ 4 billion[2] (Kommersant), one sixth of all contracts between Russia and the other countries (US$ 25 billion) and a fifth of the Russian government expenditure for the purchase of weapons in 2012 (US$ 18 billion). With all the hardships for comparing the data, we can say that Syria ensures at least a significant percentage for the Russian weapons industry. According to the International Institute for the Peace Research of Stockholm (SIPRI), between 2007 and 2011, Damascus increased sevenfold the purchase of weapons (among them, 72% were from Russia).

At the time of the USSR, the provision of weapons was a political investment. Nowadays the Syrian Army technological dependence of the Russian weapons constitutes a large and stable source of income to the “military industrial complex” (VPK). This is particularly important because, after the mass destruction of the Russian industry in the 1990s, the VPK has remained as the last great high-tech industry, regardless of imperialism and self-sufficient, and has many companies linked to it (its meaning is similar to the auto industry to other countries). VPKemploys directly, around 3 million people, it is the basis of a large section of the bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie united the Army, it is an important ground for the Putin’s regime. In the situation of global economic crisis, the stability of the VPK highlyinfluences the economic and social stability in the country and also in the internal stability of the regime.

From 2005 to 2008, the yearly volume of the Syrian-Russian trade increased 10 times (from 0.2 to 2 billion dollars)[3]. The whole of Russian investments in the country reached 20 billion dollars (Odnako, source connected to the Kremlin). Assad also maintains the Russian naval military base. Assad has always supported the Putin’s war in the Caucasus and also supported the war with Georgia. In 2008, during his visit to Moscow, Assad said he was willing to cooperate in “all projects which aimed at the protection and safety of Russia” and even offered Syrian territory for the installation of the of the missiles complex “Iskander” (this last proposal was politely refused by Putin so that the relationships with Israel and the U.S. were not jeopardized).

After all, why does Putin support Assad?

Obama and Putin agree on the need to end the Syrian revolution, but the dividing line between them is situated exactly in the Syrian regime. The regime that dominates Syria is a dictatorial regime that controls the entire political scenery and relies on an Army totally dependent on Russian weapons. Any “political liberalization” (the weakening of the regime expanding the “the bourgeois democratic” freedoms and, even further, its overthrow and replacement by a parliamentary regime), would mean the downfall of the political role of the Army and the unbridled growth of the imperialism possibilities in participating directly in the political process in Syria.

While the military regime of Assad stays in power with its own methods of ruling the state, the Putin’s regime will have an advantage that corresponds to the proportion of the Russian weapons in the Syrian Army. However in the realm of “bourgeois democracy,” where politics is resolved first and foremost on money basis, (the imperialism’s most natural and preferred ground), the Putin’s regime, economically weak, is doomed to political failure.

Putinis aware that the “democratic parliament” would question, sooner or later, the purchases of Russian weapons and would favor NATO weapons. The structural dependence of the Syrian Army in relation to Russian weapons would start to fade (not to mention the naval military base).

This is already happening in Libya, where the replacement of the dictatorial regime of Gaddafi by the parliamentary regime is seen in Russia as a “goodbye” to weapons contracts. In Syria, the wager is much higher. The Putin regime peacefully accepted the fall of Mubarak who was armed by imperialism, became a little more nervous about the fall of Gaddafi, armed by imperialism and Russia (now it seems that only by imperialism) and are ready to defend Assad with all his forces since Syria is armed almost exclusively by Russia. For the Putin regime, it is about the “loss of Syria,” as they are used to saying in the Russian newspapers.

However, not only Syria is involved. Assad’sfall would inevitably reach the regime of the ayatollahs in Iran, with which Russia also has special relationships, thanks to Iran’s confrontation with imperialism. Russia guarantees Iran’s nuclear program when took on this role in lieu of U.S. and German companies, thatcould not continue the project because of the imperialist sanctions. These same political reasons put constraining effects on the Russian projects with respect to gas in Iran. Another important consequence would be the blow in the flow of Russian weapons among North Korea, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas that also guarantee the Russian political weight.

In summary, Assad’s dictatorial regime is an outpost of Russia on Syria: Syria is an outpost of Russia in the Middle East, and this region is one of the most important in the world. Putin’s regime is afraid of the domino effect that would take place with Assad dictatorship fall.

The capitalism restoration has destroyed the Russian economic power, but the country inherited from the USSR an “almost Soviet” Army, the second in the world. Thanks to the size of the Russian Army, thanks to VPK and the role of Russian weapons around the world, especially in the Middle East, the Russian political weight is much higher than itseconomic weight, and is a lever of Putin’s regime on the world stage. This disproportionate political weight is a temporary phenomenon, and there is a general trend that time will come when its political weight will lower until it corresponds to its actualeconomic weight. The Assad regime overthrow either by the masses or by the hands of imperialism, would cause the collapse of the political weight of Russia taking it to the level corresponding to its economy, i.e. a producer of raw materials.

These are the possible “external” consequences of Assad’s fall for Putin’s regime. However there would also be “interior” consequences. Putin and Co. know that the campaign for the Arab revolutions also affects their regime, and the fall of dictators leads to, among the Russian people, corresponding thoughts and comments. Not to mention the risks to the domination of the Russian regime in the Caucasus. Moreover, the bureaucratic-military sectors, key for the regime, would be affected and it would undermine its internal balance.

Hence, Putin’s regime carries out in Russia an aggressive campaign against the Arab revolutions and states that they are “U.S. conspiracies” and that they are “destroying the countries”. The same discourse is used against the anti-regime moods within Russia. Regarding Syria, the main Russian TV channels show clips from Syrian TV and do interviews with the “Russian wives” (this is a phenomenon in Syria, the result of decades of friendship between the countries) “witnessing” in favor of Assad .

For Obama, the maintenance of Assad’s regime in power is a matter of form. For Putin it is a matter of principles. The focus of imperialism in an eventual resignation of Assad, (considered by imperialism as a component who aggravates the crisis in the region), was categorically inconvenient for Putin, because Assad’s resignation is precisely what would most worsen the situation of the Russian regime. It is in this context that we need to consider the agreement on the liquidation of Assad’s chemical weapons, which was a political victory for Putin, since it protected Assad’s regime from an imperialism attack.

Imperialism has more variants to object to Syrian revolution, but at the same time, it has more room to hesitate and make mistakes, and is not able toavoid it (either Obama with his “red lines”, Hollande who had declared war and then was forced to retreat or Cameron, who lost the voting in the British Parliament).

Putin options are not so broad and therefore his political position is stronger compared to the “opportunism” of imperialism. On the other hand, the more active is the support of Putin to Assad, the greater the consequences of a victory of the revolution to the position of Putin in face ofthe world and within Russia itself.

An agreement point between imperialism and friends of the Syrian regime would be the “negotiations with the involvement of all parties,” including the Syrian regime in one or another form. However this solution could not be achieved so far, because ofthe strength of the Syrian revolution.

In order to force the imperialists, dictators and their friends cease to decide the Syrian people fate, and in order to make the Arab revolution takea leap the rebels must win the war and overthrow Assad. They have done a lot for this, but they need two things: weapons and a boycott to the Syrian regime. Without it, it will be very difficult to win. All of this is impossible without an international aid of workers and peoples of other countries. It is necessary to surround the Syrian revolution of solidarity and defend it, demanding that all governments break all their dealings with Assad and send weaponsto the rebels, without imposing any conditions.

The victory of the Syrian revolution could have a special meaning for the Russians, because it would deeply undermine the reactionary and police-type Putin regime, who wants to maintain the Assad dictatorship and the crushing of the Syrian people, in order to better overwhelm in his own country the 5 million Caucasians, the 11 million immigrants, and especially the 115 million Russians, the main source and victim of his domination; and continue strengthening in Russia the repression and the barbarous reforms. Assad’s fall could become a huge blow to the dominance of the reactionary forces in the country.

* I. Razin is a member of POI (Internationalist Workers Party) of Russia.


[1] Evseev V.V., Someaspects of Russian-Syrian cooperation. The Middle East Institute, Moscow

[2] Equivalent to a quarter of Russian weapons exports in 2012 (12 billion dollars).

[3] A. Kreits, Syria: Russia’s central wager in the Middle East, French Institute of Foreign Relations, IFRI, 2010.

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