What is Russia doing in Syria?
—Dorn, 25 February 2014 (with interpolated comments by Riley, 2 March 2014)
The conflict in Syria allows us to look very concretely at the role Russia plays in the world and whether Marxists should describe it as imperialist.
In her email of 24 February, Rox paraphrases Tom from a previous discussion (“A Response to Comrade Logan’s ‘Twenty Points'”, 26 October 2013), saying that if there was evidence of “serious intervention by Russian capital in the direction of subordinating Syria for the purpose of pumping value out of it and/or the rest of the region” or evidence of “foreign investment in Syria and elsewhere are in line with a Marxist understanding of finance capital” (RB emphasis), he would have to change his view. Earlier in his reply to Bill, Tom asserts that Russia “is not attempting to seize the material wealth of the Middle East, which is at bottom what motivates the policy of the US and its allies”.
This is a fair statement of the problem. The issue re Syria is what exactly is Russia up to. I think that if we look closely at the whole picture we will see that is geopolitical rather than economic calculations that determine Moscow’s policy (as is also the case in Ukraine and most other places). Russia’s motivations are essentially the same as Iran’s which also has important strategic reasons to back the Assad regime.
Russia has significant economic interests in Syria, with several Russian financial institutions still operating despite the civil war. “Recent Russian arms sales to Syria are worth $4 billion, including fighter jets and advanced missiles. Russian business investments in Syria encompassing infrastructure, energy and tourism amount to nearly $20 billion. A natural gas processing plant about 200 kilometers east of Homs is being constructed by a Russian engineering company, Stroytransgaz.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/opinion/russias-syrian-power-play.html?_r=0) . ” Tatarstan-based oil producer Tatneft is the most significant Russian energy firm in Syria. The company began pumping Syrian oil in April 2010 through a joint venture with Syria’s national oil company and said in January that it would spend $12.8 million drilling exploratory wells near the Iraqi border. ”
The passage immediately preceding the above reads:
“Nikolai Grishenko, director of Sovintervod, a water engineering company, said he was in daily contact with his 20-man team in Aleppo, which has experienced no disruption.
“Sovintervod has been working in Syria for more than 50 years. Grishenko added that Assad was a “decent man” and compared today’s protests to the 1980s civil unrest in Syria, which was successfully crushed by the government at the cost of up to 25,000 dead and wounded civilians.”
A great deal of existing Russian business in Syria dates from the Soviet period. I think that we can agree that whatever the capitalization of Sovintervod, and others like it, given their historical origin they cannot be viewed as examples of imperialist finance capitalist investment but rather as continuations of economic relationships essentially similar to those between Russia and other former Soviet republics.
While these are only a tiny percentage of Russia’s foreign investments, they are strategic insofar as they are aimed at securing Russian interests and influence in an important focal point of inter-imperialist rivalry.
I think that in this discussion we need to focus on the facts and avoid the temptation to presume that which is supposed to be demonstrated. Workers Power sees Syria as a rivalry which pits U.S. vs. Russian/Iranian “imperialism.” Presuming that we can all agree that we do not consider Iran to be intervening as an imperialist we need to see if the axis of Russian action is fundamentally different. If we look carefully at the record of Russian economic and political support/activity in Syria we will find that it, like the earlier Soviet policy it continues, is driven primarily by a desire to prop up an ally with the idea of profit-maximization entirely subordinate.
The fact that countries see to secure their “interests and influence” in the lucrative field of energy supply does not qualify them as imperialist in the Marxist sense. Saddam Hussein’s attempt to take over Kuwaiti oil is a case in point. A more recent example is the mid-2013 deal Iran negotiated with Pakistan to build a pipeline to provide cheap fuel (and break U.S./UN sanctions). Iran was seeking to secure its interests and expand its influence. Russia is not acting qualitatively differently in relation to Syrian gas and oil. And the fact that all Western imperialist corporations are staying clear of the area underlines the reality that Russian TNCs operate rather differently those we can all agree are imperialist ones.
Russia has a military installation in the Syrian port of Tartus, providing its only access to the Mediterranean, where several Russian navy vessels operate. In early 2012, CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/2012/02/02/opinion/treisman-russia-syria) describes the port as being refurbished and set up for much more extensive use, extended to accommodate an aircraft carrier etc., although it seems that Tartus was temporarily evacuated, along with many Russian citizens in Syria, in mid 2013 (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/26/russia-withdraws-personnel-syria). Reports on the evacuation are conflicting, but it seems unlikely that Moscow will easily give up this toehold in the Middle East.
The following two articles, worth reading in their entirety, are overviews of Russia’s strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean, highlighting a deal that was signed in December for Russia to extract oil from newly discovered sources in Syrian territorial waters:
Nick Butler observes that because there is a civil war in Syria it is “No wonder that all the major western companies have studiously avoided the area” (‘Russia advances into the Mediterranean’, 30 December 2013). Western (i.e., imperialist) energy corporations tend to avoid any areas with serious civil conflicts because that makes it too expensive to create and maintain infrastructure and vastly raise expenses for any project—thus diminishing and postponing any potential return on capital invested. But Russia’s state owned/dominated corporations can override such calculations—because the Kremlin has a dog in the Syrian fight. Of course Putin et al are not humanitarians disinterested in promoting Russia’s economic interests. Syria is important to Russia because, among other things, its potential role in future energy “pipeline politics” in the Eastern Mediterranean, some of which we touch on in our forthcoming article.
The Financial Times (26 December 2013) had a few days earlier published the following assessment of the deal:
“Ayham Kamel, senior Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group, added: ‘This is once again a message of support from Russia for the Syrian regime.’
“‘The implicit support from Moscow in this deal should be seen as bolstering the government in Damascus and [could] produce in the medium-term a new source of revenue for the regime’.”
. . .
“Azamat Kulmuhametov, Russia’s ambassador to Syria, said the contract signalled ‘proof of the strong economic relations’ between Moscow and Damascus in the face of ‘arbitrary sanctions’ imposed on the Syrian regime.”
A report posted on Naturalgaseurope.com, on New Year’s Day offered the following assessment:
The Syrian-Russian deal comes as a confirmation of Moscow’s continued support to the Assad regime. The agreement was also interpreted as a sign of gratitude from the regime to Russia’s friendship. The deal will not have any immediate repercussion given that even if natural gas and oil were to be discovered in Syrian waters, extracting and monetizing such resources would take years to materialise.
Assad has reason to be grateful for his Russian connection, as well as his Iranian one. They are why he is still in the Presidential palace.
This deal is in Russia’s area of strength in natural resources but here it is not a matter of making profits simply by selling commodities extracted from Russia itself but in using expertise in domestic extraction to invest capital in order to extract value from other regions of the world.
It is my impression that Russian technology in the oil and gas sector, like most others, does not generally qualify as “expertise” by current international standards, even though it is undoubtedly superior to that possessed by Syria, Lebanon or Cyprus. This is the view of Thane Gustafson, a world class expert on contemporary Russia who we have previously cited in 1917. In summarizing the assessment advanced in his recently published Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia a reviewer wrote
“Gustafson observes that the Russian oil industry relies, to a degree that is unusual in international terms, on its ‘brownfields’– fields that entered production decades ago. The boom of the 2000s had less to do with the energies of new entrepreneurs than with the accumulated inheritance of the Soviet era: fields, pipelines, geological knowledge and drilling techniques remain largely the same. The surge in production since the late 1990s seems impressive only because of the slump that immediately preceded it; Russian oil output has not matched its 1987 peak even today. In Gustafson’s view, the Soviet legacy assets have acted as an anaesthetic, delaying the adaptation of the Russian oil industry to modern management and technology, allowing it to remain relatively isolated and poorly equipped to compete globally.”
—London Review of Books, July 2013
Russia’s state-dominated energy sector activity in Syria etc. is not aimed at short term revenue generation but is part of a larger geopolitical agenda—preventing Syria being “liberated” a la Libya. This is why Russian state companies are prepared to invest in a situation where actually existing finance capitalists steer clear because of inordinately high risks and low and/or delayed rewards. Russia’s rulers, like those of China, Iran and other non-compliant states, are prepared to invest in blocking attempts to whack regimes that operate independently of the IMF et al.
The first of these articles also discusses Russia’s relationship with Cyprus in some detail. This has mainly come up in our discussion around the question of roundtripping, but this indicates that there is more to the economic relationship with Cyprus, the instability of Syria giving it considerable strategic importance. There is suggestion that Cyprus could provide an alternative port should Tartus become unavailable.
On the whole, and combined with what we know about Russia’s standing in the global capitalist system, it seems to me that Russia’s actions in Syria and the surrounding region add up quite clearly to the behaviour of an imperialist power – investing finance capital with the objective of extracting net value from the region back to Russia (literally, as Tom puts it, “pumping value out of it and/or the rest of the region”). This is backed up by military muscle in the form of the navy and by political diplomacy (eg, the deal struck to prevent a US attack on Syria). It should be noted that these interests are not in Russia’s immediate backyard, but in a key region of the world for imperialist value extraction.
I suggest that the fact that Russia is attempting to pursue its national interest (and safeguard the only significant revenue stream it has from the global market) by blocking rival attempts to provide the lucrative EU market with energy is not sufficient to qualify it as imperialist. The investments made by Russia in Syrian gas, and the usually extremely generous terms under which they are arranged, like the willingness to loan money to “bad risks” like Cyprus and Greece when the IMF/international financial markets will not, show a willingness to outbid US/EU energy corporations. The ability to do this is in part due to the fact that the Russian state industry is not required to keep stock prices up, maximize investment opportunities and avoid bad risks in the same way that regular TNCs are. They operate in a somewhat different framework and are responsible to different overlords—Putin’s Kremlin vs Wall Street hedge funds.
It should also be noted that US investment in Syria is currently far less than Russian investment, due to sanctions. Both Russia and the US are playing for the prize of future value extraction from Syria and the region, Russia by defending the relationship with a current ally, the US by seeking to aid the overthrow of that Russian ally, and both by extending their influence to other countries in the region.
I think that, in Syria and elsewhere, the US is also in this case pursuing larger geopolitical objectives than access to Syrian resources—it is seeking to cut off revenue to Russia to weaken its position and make it more susceptible to pressure of various sorts. This is also why the US is willing to bid for the allegiance of Georgia and various rulers in the former Soviet “stans” even if there is little likelihood of significant return on investment in the nearish future.
On the question of our attitude should these two great powers come to blows, Rox cites Tom suggesting that a Russian military intervention into the Syrian conflict would not be imperialist because it “would be essentially defensive in character” and aimed at retaining the status quo.
She asks whether those who consider Russia to be imperialist would agree. Whether an action is defensive or offensive has no bearing on whether the perpetrator is imperialist. In furthering their global interests, imperialist powers will defend existing positions and possessions as well as seeking out new ones. The British troops in the North of Ireland were sent to defend existing interests – that does not make them any less imperialist.
Of course we are indifferent to which imperialist is the aggressor and who was trying to merely defend what they had already stolen. Perhaps the phrase “essentially defensive in character” is best understood with some context. It appeared toward the end of a fairly involved discussion in the IEC on 14 June 2012 from which I have extracted what seems to me to be the gist. The exchange commenced with an inquiry [from Dorn] as to my view of the Syria situation:
“…we should probably talk through the programmatic implications of some possible scenarios to do with Russian/US intervention in Syria, which seems to me to have characteristics of inter-imperialist rivalry. What are your thoughts?”
“….I was already thinking that it would be good to write up as a ‘canned copy’ article for 1917, to accompany a piece on why it is important to defend Syria in the event of imperialist attack. [This eventually appeared in 1917 No. 39 as “Roots & Fruits of Imperialism.”]
“This agreement should give us a yardstick, for example, to determine whether we consider Portugal or Greece to be imperialist, as I pointed out when I recirculated it in response to this question a few weeks ago. It should also allow us to assess the relationship between Syria and Russia–is it like the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq or Russia and Ossetia. In the one case we have one position in the other another”
I received the following reply:
I’m not sure if I understand your analogy. I don’t think Syria could be compared to Ossetia, which is a component part of Russia, and I don’t think it’s comparable to the US/Iraq relationship either, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding. The way I see it is we have a civil war in Syria with the US and European imperialists aligning themselves on one side and the Russian imperialists on the other.
. . .
“And I think that applying ‘What is Imperialism?’ to Russia gives us a weaker imperialist power that is trying to use financial and military muscle to gain influence (and profit) out in the world. These latest moves make sense to me in that context.
“What do you think?”
To which I replied:
“On the Syria/Russia thing. The first thing is that Russia is a great power. But that does not make it imperialist (I think we agree.)
“As regards my suggested analogy here is what I meant: South Ossetia is part of Georgia nominally–North is in Russia but they are not Russian. According to Wiki “The Ossetians (Ossetic: ирæттæ, irættæ) are an Iranic ethnic group of the Caucasus Mountains, indigenous to the region known as Ossetia. They speak Ossetic, an Iranian language of the Eastern branch of the Indo-European languages family, with most also fluent in Russian as a second language.”
“The Ossetians (Southern division) are friendly to Russia (like the Albanians were friendly first to Stalin and then Mao as a counterweight to Tito). Russia is not there as an exploiting finance capitalist power seeking to gain superprofits but as a patron/protector. As they would have sort have liked to have been when their Serb ally/client was being attacked by NATO but did not dare (Russia under Yeltsin being both much weaker and more US linked.) The fact that Ossetia is on Russia’s border and Syria and Serbia are not is also of course neither here nor there.”
Which drew the following response:
“my initial reponse is to wonder what your analysis below means for the potential scenario of Russian and US (and/or French/British etc) troops actually fighting in/over Libya. Are you saying that, if this happens, we should be on the side of Assad and the Russians against the rebels and their imperialist backers? It seems to me that the issue of the defence of the independence of a semi-colony against imperialist aggression (as in Libya, Iraq etc) is rather negated by the semi-colony becoming merely the spoil of war, whatever the result (even if the sides are rather uneven).”
I answered as follows:
“Well I think that both Iran (a non imperialist) and British imperialist SAS forces are already on the ground. If their numbers were to increase substantially (say x1000) our attitude would not change—i.e., we would be for defense of Assad regime v imperialism. If the Russians were to send a significant number of troops (highly unlikely) to prevent a US client state being established which, if it came to pass, would immediately dominate Lebanon, checkmate Hezbollah and tighten the noose around Iran that would not necessarily be a bad thing. IF they were to do so, instead of trying to secure their own interests as a semi-ally, semi-opponent of the US-led bloc, capable of arranging an inside coup or some such I do not think that the world would be a worse place (i.e., Syria would not fall under the economic control of Russia which would seek to plunder it as the US planned for Iraq. Nor would it be a platform for a renewed attempt to conquer the Mid East oil wells via ‘regime change’ in Iran. It would be an attempt to preserve the status quo (including a port on the Mediterranean for the Russian navy) and block a move by the US in the Great Game for domination of the EuroAsian heartland (which Russia sees as including a lot of its own turf as well of course as Iran).
“I think that Assad would be ANXIOUS to have Russian paratroopers land in Damascus at this point as it would solidify his regime. This would contrast with, for example, the way that Saddam Hussein or the Taliban viewed the arrival of NATO forces. The difference is in what they would be there to do. I do not think that the motivation of the Russians would be equivalent to that of the US and its proxies, so I do not see why we would have the same attitude to them.
“A hypothetical Russian intervention would be essentially defensive in character–an attempt to preserve the Assad regime. So we should not look at Syria as becoming a ‘spoil of war,’ in such an event. The status quo would be maintained and the Zionist/US Syria-Iran project would have a setback.” [emphasis added]
It is not clear in Tom’s scenario why Russia is anxious to defend its ally, if not for financial advantage.
There are of course material motivations and a material basis for geopolitical actions. Some of this is discussed above. Maintaining its status as EU’s chief supplier of energy is very important to Russia’s rulers as by far their most profitable activity as well as giving them leverage in future negotiations with the EU etc. This is something that the US has been aware of back to the Brezhnev period when they unsuccessfully attempted to block a deal to send Soviet oil to Germany. The Russians are not in Syria to gain control its gas deposits, any more than the Iranians are. In fact the motivation of both is virtually identical (which of course does not exclude the possibility of either of them turning on that other—or Assad—at at any point if it seemed advantageous).
Russia is attempting bloc an imperialist-backed take-down of its Syrian ally, not to take over Syria nor impose a regime more to its liking. Even the New York Times has recognized this:
“‘Syria is kind of it in the Middle East at this point for Russia,’ said Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russia expert with the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally financed research group based in Virginia. ‘That can go a long way toward explaining why Russia stuck with Assad for the last year.’
“The Kremlin is also eager to send a stern message to the West about its distaste for interference in any country’s internal affairs — a point it reiterated in voting against the General Assembly resolution last week.
. . .
“But if the talk from Russia is heavy on respecting Syria’s autonomy, and avoiding the chaos that has engulfed Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Egypt, arms exports have long anchored the relationship between Moscow and Damascus, including sales over the years of MIG fighter jets, attack helicopters and high-tech air defense systems.“
. . .
“Syria, however, has a checkered history when it comes to paying for its weapons.
“Mr. Assad arrived in Moscow for his first state visit in 2005, with his country owing Russia about $13.5 billion. Mr. Putin welcomed him warmly at a ceremony in St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace. Their wives met for tea.
“At the time, the two leaders signed a “joint declaration on friendship and cooperation,” and Russia agreed to write off nearly 75 percent of Syria’s unpaid bills.”
Maintaining the status quo in the region is an important security objective of both Russia and Iran. A CIA supported “color revolution” in Syria would represent a big step toward something similar in Iran, which of course the ayatollahs are resistant to. And Russia does not want to see Iran becoming a US protectorate as it was under the Shah. So they have a shared interest in maintaining the status quo. This is why they are both so willing to make sacrifices to defend their ally.
In fact beleaguered Iran has provided substantial financial support (given its circumstances) to Assad. The Voice of Russia (2 August 2013) interviewed Mona Yacoubian, a Mid East expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC in which she described Iran’s provision of financial credits to the Assad regime as the latest instance of a long-term “strategic partnership”:
“I think we can understand it in the broader context and that is that Iran is perhaps one of the staunchest allies of the Syrian regime, it has been for quite some. This latest line of credit of 3.6. billion comes actually after an earlier line of credit for about a billion in January. So what we’re seeing is certainly ratcheting up of the system, but it comes in the broader context of Iranian support for the Assad regime:”
When asked what Iran stood to gain from providing this financing she replied:
“I’m not so sure it will help them. In fact, I think one could almost ask the opposite question which is how long can Iran provide favorable terms to Syria? Syrian economy is collapsing. And I think Iran is doing whatever it can to help bolster the Syrian economy. But, as you know, Iran itself is under fairly rigorous sanctions regime. So the question is how long can Iran manage to provide assistance, favorable terms of trade and other things to the Syrian regime when Iran itself is under significant economic pressure?”
Russia, not subject to the same pressure, has been able to do considerably more to support Assad financially. But the support offered by either has nothing to do with finance capital seeking opportunities for maximum return on investment. Putin’s willingness to pour resources into Syria under very favorable terms (after a 75 percent write down of previous investments in 2005) reflects the same geostrategic calculation as that of the ayatollahs: neither wants to see another “humanitarian” intervention a la Libya.
He argues that “Russia’s involvement in the Middle East is largely an inheritance from the USSR, as is its nuclear capacity”. The indisputably imperialist powers also inherited their position from various accidents of history, natural resources, and geography, and use these to full advantage. The evidence here is that Russia, increasingly, uses and attempts to extend its position in the Middle East to back up the investment of finance capital for the purpose of value extraction – exactly the criteria that should lead Tom and others to re-evaluate their assessment of Russia.
While in my view the evidence points to the opposite conclusion, I agree that all comrades should be willing to re-evaluate their views on the basis of careful consideration of the facts.