Kremlin likely to maintain support for Assad in attempt to save face

By Steve Gutterman ,Reuters

MOSCOW — The Kremlin’s desire to project a firm image to the world, the West and its own people in an election season mean Moscow is unlikely to turn on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and seek sanctions or his resignation. Amid growing global pressure on Assad, Russia’s more supportive stance is also rooted in resentment over Western action in Libya and reluctance to lose one of its few footholds in the Middle East. And as Europe struggles with a debt crisis and the United States prepares for an unpredictable presidential vote next November, Russia’s leaders may have calculated they have little to gain from falling in line with the West. “Russia believes it is very important to show that it holds a position independent of the United States and the West,” said Moscow-based political analyst Yevgeny Volk. “To withdraw support for Assad, in the Kremlin’s opinion, would be seen by the whole world as abandonment of a loyal ally and following in the wake of Western policy,” he said. Russia drew a line in the sand over Syria after voicing anger over NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels oust Moammar Gadhafi. Moscow had let the NATO operation go ahead by abstaining in the U.N. Security Council vote that authorized it, but then accused the alliance of overstepping its mandate to protect civilians. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likened the resolution to “medieval calls for crusades.” As Western pressure for Security Council action against Syria mounted, Russia emphasized it would not support a resolution that condemned only Assad’s government. With China, it vetoed a U.S.-backed European draft last month, saying it would have opened the way for military intervention. “After that, it’s very hard to imagine Russia supporting any actions that could even be interpreted as permission for any use of external force in Syria,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Foreign Affairs. For Putin, who has made opposition to Western interference in the affairs of sovereign states a mantra in over a decade in power, to accede to the West on Syria would be a big departure.

Campaign Calculations Polls indicate that Putin, president from 2000-2008 and still Russia’s most powerful leader, will have little trouble returning to the highest office in an election next March. But his approval ratings have fallen in the past year and his ruling United Russia party, always less popular than Putin himself, faces a challenge retaining its constitutional two-thirds majority in a parliamentary election on Dec. 4. Gadhafi’s demise cost Russia billions of dollars in arms sales and jeopardized several oil and infrastructure deals. Volk said Syria was “practically the only ally of Russia in the Middle East.” It has been a hard-currency buyer of Russian weapons and hosts a naval maintenance facility on the Mediterranean that is the closest thing Russia has to a military base outside the former Soviet Union. Syria accounted for 7 percent of Russia’s total of US$10 billion in arms deliveries abroad in 2010, according to the Russian defense think tank CAST. To be seen as giving in on Syria would deepen discontent in the arms industry and hand United Russia’s electoral rivals, the Communists and flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, fodder for campaign rhetoric.