Still wondering who won the standoff last summer over “red lines” in Syria? Wonder no longer. Vladimir Putin got Bashar al-Assad a new lease on life a few months ago when he pushed back against Western demands for intervention after chemical-weapons use got so blatant that it could no longer be ignored. Now Russia is trying to make sure Assad succeeds as fast as needed to completely preclude any intervention at all:
In recent weeks Russia has stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria, including armored vehicles, drones and guided bombs, boosting President Bashar al-Assad just as rebel infighting has weakened the insurgency against him, sources with knowledge of the deliveries say.
Moscow, which is trying to raise its diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East, has been a major provider of conventional weapons to Syria, giving Assad crucial support during the three-year civil war and blocking wider Western attempts to punish him with sanctions for the use of force against civilians.
The new Russian supplies come at a critically fluid stage of the conflict, with peace talks scheduled for next week in Switzerland, the factious opposition losing ground, and Western support for the rebellion growing increasingly wary of the role played by foreign militants. Syria has even said some countries formally opposed to Assad have begun discussing security cooperation with his government.
Several sources told Reuters that Assad’s forces had since December received deliveries of weaponry and other military supplies, including unmanned spy drones known as UAVs, which have been arranged by Russia either directly or via proxies.
This isn’t just geopolitics to Putin, although he has to take a great deal of satisfaction in slapping back the US and UK. NATO, led by Barack Obama, intervened disastrously in Libya and the US ended up paying a big price for it in Benghazi (and the French in Mali, for that matter), but that didn’t stop Obama and other American politicians from trying the same strategy again to push Assad out. Putin refused to go along, and got fortunate when the political winds changed for Obama and David Cameron. He’s obviously not interested in leaving another opening for the West to change their minds.
The other motive for Putin here is strictly mercantile. Russia wants the arms sales, and they’re willing to spread the love a little here:
“Equipment has been moving into Syria, and Russia is either bringing it in themselves or sourcing supplies from Black Sea areas like Bulgaria, Romania or Ukraine, where there is surplus stock floating around,” the source said. “Suppliers in that region cannot afford to upset the Russians.”
Arms trackers say Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine all have stockpiles of Russian-styled light arms that were produced in the countries dating back to the Soviet era, when factories were set up with help from Moscow.
Putin also wants to protect other economic interests in Syria:
The arms industry source said: “Stuff is definitely coming into Syria, and Russia realizes they have to keep Assad in power if they want to keep a hold of what they have there, especially with oil and gas reserves up for grabs.”
Russian oil and gas company Soyuzneftegas signed a $90 million deal with Syria’s oil ministry in December for oil exploration and production in a 2,190 square kilometers (845 square miles) bloc of Mediterranean waters off the Syrian coast between Tartous and Banias.
The resurgence of Assad’s regime bolsters Russian credibility, even as the civil war within the rebels discredits the West. That was in part the point of Sir Hew Strachan in his comments about the incoherence of Obama’s military and foreign policies, especially in regard to Syria. Rest assured, Putin isn’t suffering from the same problem.
However, he’s not terribly adept at public relations, either. The media has focused a lot less today on these developments than on Putin’s comments “welcoming” gays and lesbians to Russia for the Sochi Olympics … as long as they don’t talk about their orientation and “leave children in peace”:
“We have no ban on the nontraditional forms of sexual intercourse among people,” Putin said in remarks carried by the Interfax news service. “We have the ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia. I want to stress this: propaganda among minors. These are two absolutely different things: a ban on certain relations or the propaganda of such relations.”
Putin asserted that the idea of legalizing pedophilia has been discussed in some countries.
“There is nothing secret about it, look it up on the Internet and you’ll find it straightaway,” he said. “Parties have raised the issue with certain parliaments. So what, are we supposed to shuffle behind them like obedient dogs toward unknown consequences? We have our own traditions, our own culture, we treat all our partners with respect and ask for our traditions and our culture to be treated with respect as well.”
One more question: Why, a volunteer asked, do Russia’s Olympic uniforms contain the colors of the rainbow, the rainbow being a symbol of gay rights?
Don’t ask him, the president said. “I didn’t design the uniform.”
This, of course, is absurd and worthy of scorn — but it’s Putin’s moves in the Middle East that are the real threat. Too bad few (other than Reuters) seem to be paying much attention.
Addendum: By the way, I’d advise against taking Putin’s advice about doing that kind of search on the Internet.