Saturday, June 9, 2012

Syria and Russia

Internationalizing a Smelly Little Dictatorship

There are dictatorships, and then, there are dictatorships.

Huge, geopolitically important dictatorships such as the old USSR or the modern theocracy in Iran certainly host all the trappings of power and influence, sharing these generously with the respective autocrat.  However, smaller minded autocracies such as Iraq or Libya hosted their "premier citizens" somewhat more modestly.  MeanMesa noted after the Iraq invasion that Sadam's "palaces" looked more like seedy, 1960's Holiday Inns, for example.

Syria, under Bashar al-Assad and his equally murderous father, Hafez, lacks that terrifying "verve" that the old Soviets used to be able to bluster and muster.  The country is not particularly endowed with much more than a strategic "sweet spot" with respect to its location, and the al-Assad family have run the place more like a worn out family store with a secret Mafia hide out in the back for decades.

As the initial waves of the Arab Spring began to sweep the country, the current al-Assad immediately reverted to the tried and true approach for which his father was famous.  The elder al-Assad slaughtered 20,000 or so Syrians in Hama in the early 1980's.   No matter how brutal the current reaction may seem, it remains ever so slightly more civilized -- at least based on the death count.

Also, plenty has been said about "out of country" players.  The Russian Federation inherited Syria as a client state from the old Soviets.  Although the Earth of the Middle East had moved under their feet, the Russians have adhered closely to the Soviet model of the client state.

With this post, MeanMesa will attempt to fill in a few of the mysterious parts of the incomprehensible events now taking place in the country.  First, a look at the players.

The Assad Regime's International Map (Image Source/MeanMesa)

 Although the Syrian military -- usually accompanied by mixed gangs of Iranian "street clothes" helpers and Alawite shock troop militias -- seems to have been "spreading the glee" all over the country, a closer look shows that the heaviest violence has been in a concentric ring around the port city of Tartus.  This is not a simple coincidence.

Tribal/political map of Syrian Arab Republic (map source)

We can see the names of the cities and villages where the slaughters have occurred on the map above.  There have certainly been exceptions, but many of the places noted in the news are in the states surrounding the port of Tartus -- Hamah [Hamas], Idlib, Latakia [al-Assad family origin], Hims [Homs] and ancient Aleppo.  Some of this concentrated regional attack may be caused by natural concentrations of religious groups, Sunni and others, who oppose the al-Assad autocracy, but MeanMesa suspects that the proximity to Tartus may offer even more of an explanation.

Adding Russia to the Recipe

Although there is, undoubtedly, plenty of both Arab Spring and government repression to go around in Syria, we see the Syrian government responding most forcefully in these regions.  We may also assume that Bashar al-Assad simply doesn't have enough army to repress the less populated Western states which seem to have been getting more of a "hit and a lick."

We can see from this map recapping the casualties from March 2011 to April 2012 that while certainly not all, but still a large majority of Syrians suffering from the government's attacks have been living in this "ring around Tartus" area.

Locating Syrian casualties. (map source)

The Importance of Tartus begins to emerge from the fog of this back woods dictator.

The alliance between Syria and Russia has amounted mainly to arms sales which are supported by access to the port.  Here we need to review a few things about Russian arms in the region.

In the wars with Israel, Russian armor flowed from Syria in a wave which was intended to crush the IDF and recapture the Golan.  Instead, Israeli armor, principally US M48's successfully routed the Syrians.  A similar tank victory occurred in the Sinai.  The trend continued in Iraq where US M1Abrams faced Russian armor in the desert.  Gadhafi was using primarily Russian arms as he attempted to retain control of Libya.

The Russian Federation has roughly the same eagerness for arms sales as the US.  However, Russian prices are notably lower while Russian claims for effectivity are often calibrated by how well one might expect to do against similar NATO or US equipment.  Long before the problems in Syria, Russian arms merchants had already become wary of direct conflicts where their equipment actually faced the armor they had boasted on being able to defeat.

In Syria the Russian Federation's presence is not limited to armor.  Syria was "fortified" by the old Soviet Union after the "show down" over Damascus.  With the combat arena essentially cleared of Syrian armor, the Israeli IDF began unmistakable field tactics for an assault on the Syrian capitol.  This prompted the 1967 Kruschev call to LBJ:  "You stop them or I will."

No matter the final outcome in Syria, the Russians have an equivalent client in Iran.  We can anticipate the same complications dealing with them there.

Looking at Tartus

Years ago, Israel successfully destroyed a nuclear facility in Sadam's Iraq.  More recently, after the successful Israeli pre-emptive strike on the mysterious nuclear facility in Syria the matter of air defense gained priority.  Again, the Russian arms dealers were prepared to ease Syria's concerns.  Over a period of years, fairly competent Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries were purchased and  installed.  Today, we find the country of Syria with a modest, although aging fleet of Russian interceptor aircraft and a non-proportional air defense.

In terms of naval power, the Syrian dictatorship has essentially followed the Libyan model, emphasizing coastal security over any particular strategic presence in the Mediterranean.  A truly oceanic Syrian navy would find itself immediately competing with a whole collection of superior forces already present.

Still, the Assad regime faced the possibility of an Israeli incursion by sea.  Further, the presentation of an old American fast battleship to shell Lebanon in 1984, directly targeting Syrian troops and gun emplacements near Beirut, frustrated earlier attempts to gain control of Syria's neighbor. []  After this, Syria transformed the plan toward a political/military presence in Lebanon via Hezbollah, gaining a new level of support from the Iranians.

However, these developments were also rapidly becoming a "perfect storm" for Russian intervention in the region.  The Russian ambition was not new, but the new, favorable conditions were.  As is typical for such things, fortress ports such as Tartus didn't grow from strength but from threats.

Assad was delighted to purchase six dozen Yakhont supersonic anti-ship missiles from the Russians, after which, one thing, well, led to another.

A shiny new Yakhont anti-ship missile. (image source)

Russian-made mobile anti-ship missile systems sold to Syria could be used to protect a Russian naval supply and maintenance site near Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus, a Russian arms trade expert said on Monday. 

Russia earlier announced it would honor a 2007 contract on the delivery of several Bastion anti-ship missile systems armed with SS-N-26 Yakhont supersonic cruise missiles to Syria, despite U.S. and Israel security concerns.
Syria needs to shield a 600-km stretch of its coastline from potential amphibious assaults.

With all this in place, the Russian Federation and the Assad government find themselves in roughly the same situation that the US and the Bahrain oligarchs found themselves during the Arab Spring there.  A well established and well located US naval presence in Bahrain was suddenly cast into a political situation inconsistent with US foreign policy values.

There was violent rioting and suppression in Bahrain's streets as the majority Shia population began to resist the established Sunni royalty.  While US foreign policy words stood with the protesters, US naval interests stood with the Sunni rulers.

Switching all the players' names, we can see that Syria now faces a similar inconsistency, and the Russians have been dragged into the fray.  Assad cannot tolerate even the possibility that the Syrian uprising might physically reach the Russians at Tartus.  The Russians haven't enjoyed even the smallest choice to decide whether they are willing to deal with a Syrian opposition government or if they simply prefer to stick with Assad no matter what it takes to keep him in control.

Meanwhile, Assad must do absolutely everything to keep the lid on the Syrian Arab Spring.  Syria isn't going anywhere, and the Russians are probably also not going anywhere.  The only "movable part" left in the equation is Bashar al-Assad.

MeanMesa thought long and hard before including this final photograph. 

Geopolitics crashes to the physical level of humanity (photograph - Huffington)

This child, now ready for burial, was running and playing on the streets of Houla before Assad's forces began shelling and murdering.

For more reading, two other MeanMesa posts on the Syrian conflict:
Syria in September - "The Perfect Mousetrap"

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