Michael Weiss

Russia's Syria policy isn't going to change

Russia’s Syria policy carries on as before, but with more impunity

Putin and Assad shown in a meeting years ago in Moscow

The United States pretends to believe that Russia is a credible partner in resolving the Syrian crisis. Russia cannot believe its luck and carries on as before, but with a greater sense of impunity.


According to The New Times (an independent Russian journal), when Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Moscow earlier this month and was first forced to wait two hours to meet with a bored and fidgety Vladimir Putin, he really had only one pressing matter to discuss: the imminent transfer of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Bashar al-Assad. Damascus had already deposited $100 million of $900 million to Vnesheconombank (VEB), a Russian state-owned financial institution now known for issuing refunds, in partial satisfaction of a 2010 contract for the sophisticated air defense system. The New Times quoted an unnamed London source as saying: “The main discussion [between Kerry and Putin] naturally took place in the closed portion of the talks. The Russians let the Americans know that the contracts for the S-300s and other weapons would be fulfilled.”


If true, this would mean that Kerry’s now notorious joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at which the dead-on-arrival plan to resuscitate a year-old peace initiative was mooted, occurred with the Americans’ full knowledge that the Kremlin’s position on Syria had, if anything, only hardened over time. Kerry, meanwhile, was the one to hint that the U.S. was ready to scupper its precondition for renewed negotiations with the Syrian regime; namely that Assad must renounce power. However much this self-abasing performance was later downplayed or “clarified” by the State Department, the signal to the Russians was clear: we’ll do practically anything to bring you on board.


And so the Kremlin wasted no time in thanking the U.S. for its solicitousness. In addition to reiterating the viability of the S-300s sale, and apparently speeding up its fulfillment, Moscow began deliveries to Syria of improved versions of the Yakhont anti-ship missiles, “outfitted with an advanced radar that makes them more effective,” in the phrasing of The New York Times. About a dozen Russian warships have also been deployed to the Mediterranean in a demonstration of “muscle flexing,” as one U.S. official put it to the Wall Street Journal.


Russia’s military retrenchment has coincided with further anti-American humiliations. Last week, the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB), captured Ryan Fogle, an American embassy official in Moscow, who was alleged to be a CIA agent. Although his mugshot made him look like a stable boy just pulled off a farmer’s daughter, Fogle was said to be on the prowl for FSB recruits, a task for which he evidently required a compass, a dated map of Moscow, and a cellular phone that would have been cutting edge technology in 1998. As Fogle was being “PNGed,” it emerged that a previous CIA operative, Benjamin Dillon, had been expelled from Russia in January. Now comes a fresh report that a former U.S. embassy official and prominent anti-corruption attorney, Thomas Firestone, was detained for 16 hours at Sheremetyevo airport almost as Kerry’s plane was arriving on the tarmac. Russian intelligence had unsuccessfully tried in March to recruit Firestone, formerly honored by their government for his help with financial crimes. So he too now had to leave the country.


“Russians have always been loyal to their old friends, and Assad is one of those guys who has been known to the Russian authorities for so many years,” Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general told me. “This loyalty and support is quite understandable. It is based not so much on geostrategic interests but on an allegiance to a man who never betrayed or let the Russians down.” Hafez al-Assad, whom Kalugin met, “was a man one could do business with” and the same thinking evidently applies among fellow Chekists (both past and present) to Hafez’s second son, Bashar.


Under-reported yet of interest, Kalugin argued, is the presence of Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council who arrived in Washington this week primarily to discuss Syria. Patrushev has long been rumored to be the Kremlin’s point-man on the conflict, a fact that ought to further underscore Russia’s unwavering orientation. He was the director of the FSB, the successor of the KGB, when its agents blew up (or attempted to blow up) apartment buildings in and around Moscow in 1999, all as a pretext for launching the Second Chechen War.  Anyone suspicious of some of the car bombings that have occurred in Syria since January 2012, particularly those followed by the instantaneous appearance of state media and the recurrence of the same “eyewitnesses,” would therefore do well to bear this portfolio in mind when weighing Moscow’s long-game.


Also integral to Putin’s calculation is the history of Soviet-Syrian relations, which was not the uninterrupted feast of reason and flow of the soul as it is sometimes made out to be. In fact, that history is filled with mutual suspicion and recrimination and as a fall-back countermeasure against bilateral discord, the Russians spied on and infiltrated the Syrian military and political establishments with one overriding objective. As Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin observe in The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, a book based on the unprecedented cache of Soviet intelligence archives Mitrokhin smuggled into the West, part of the Soviet strategy for sowing anti-Western paranoia in Syria was to convince Syrian intelligence of attempted CIA (and West German BND) plots.


For all their projected complaints about an American “Cold War mentality,” the Chekists still hedge their bets and try to persuade an already paranoid Assad of plans for U.S. aggression, which all available evidence suggests doesn’t yet exist.


Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services and - not unrelatedly - its organized crime syndicates, wrote recently that the SVR (Russian’s foreign intelligence agency) was dispatching a “contingent of the highly-secret Zaslon unit” to Syria. “Formed in 1998, Zaslon is tasked with covert missions abroad ranging from protecting officials in dangerous environments to conducing assassinations,” Galeotti notes. “It numbers some 280 operators, who are trained and equipped to the highest standards.” Zaslon operatives were the personal detail for Mikhail Fradkov, the SVR director, when he traveled to Damascus last year. They often deploy wearing civilian clothes or the uniforms of other units, including those of embassy staff. Galeotti argues that they would likely be dispatched to Syria because Russia was beginning to suspect that the Assad regime was close to collapse, and therefore wanted to safeguard its personnel. Yet this deployment comes as the regime is actually gaining militarily against the rebels (thanks to Iran and Hezbollah), and at the same time that the Kremlin is both redoubling its efforts to fortify Syria against foreign intervention, as well as otherwise behaving as if it were the chief arbiter of Syria’s future.  Sending the elite of Spetsnaz to Damascus might be extra protection for a worst-case scenario, but it might also be Putin’s way of telegraphing reassurance to his ally: ’Not to worry. The Americans are up to their old tricks again, but we won’t be fooled, and when it comes to standing by our friends - remember, our red lines are ones we intend to enforce.’

Russian support of Assad is based on an allegiance to a man who never betrayed or let them down. (Source: AFP photo).

“Kerry, meanwhile, was the one to hint that the U.S. was ready to scupper its precondition for renewed negotiations with the Syrian regime; namely that Assad must renounce power.”

  • mark.lavarre

    FENRIRI, that was the President of Belarus who said that about Assad being a "cultured, educated, European man"

    May 31, 2013

  • Vlad Tepes

    Well at least this one wasn't a mini novel but still dull and hardly readable. Are you sure that journalism is your thing? Maybe you should go back to your old job, you know the one where instead of a computer you used a toilet brush. Yes, everyone knows Russia and Assad are friends, and it is because Assad as a Russian spokesman once said is a "cultured, educated, European man", unlike your preference of Saudi Arabian, illiterate, Wahhabi buffoon. Good day to you sir.

    May 25, 2013