Interactive Grid: Keeping track of the conflict in Syria through videos,… (/ )
The Syrian army’s March weapons request to its Russian supplier was the stuff of everyday battles in a long and grueling conflict. Twenty-thousand Kalashnikov assault rifles and 20 million rounds of ammunition. Machine guns. Grenade launchers and grenades. Sniper rifles with night-vision sights.
The Syrian army general asked for a price quote “in the shortest possible time.” He closed with kind regards to Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms exporter.
The flow of arms to Syria, including the advanced S-300 missile defense batteries that Moscow said this week it would supply, continues amid hopes that an international conference, jointly proposed by the United States and Russia, will lead to a negotiated political settlement of Syria’s civil war.
No date has been set for the conference, however, and it might not get off the ground until July, despite initial hopes that it would be held this month. Although Syria’s foreign minister said Wednesday that government representatives would attend “with every good intention,” opposition leaders are in a stalemate over who should represent them and whether they should even show up.
In the meantime, all sides are hedging their bets.
Britain and France will be free to arm the Syrian rebels, if they choose, when a European Union embargo they fought to lift expires Friday. The Obama administration, while still holding its fire, is poised to begin sending lethal aid to opposition forces. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, along with wealthy individuals in the Persian Gulf, have spent millions on weapons for favored rebel groups.
Iran has stepped up its supplies of technology, equipment and personnel to the Syrian government, and Lebanon-based Hezbollah — an Iranian and Syrian client — has started sending legions of fighters to the government side.
But no outside force has been as consistent in its involvement in Syria as Russia. Moscow has served as the primary arms supplier to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as it did for the predecessor government run by his father.
Alexei Ventslovsky, foreign media projects manager for Rosoboronexport, said the company would have no comment on the March request from the Syrian government. But the document — a copy of which, in its original typed Cyrillic script, was obtained by The Washington Post — underlined the Russians’ commitment to supplying Syria as part of the “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity” contracts that allow for repeated orders.
Such major military contracts are only one aspect of Russia’s interests in Syria, which include significant energy investments and a naval base in the Mediterranean port city of Tartus.
The United States and its pro-opposition partners have appealed to Russia to preserve such long-term interests in Syria by moving to the winning side and have been perplexed by the Russians’ resistance. President Obama has said that Assad must go, and legions of senior U.S. officials, citing humanitarian concerns, have argued that Russia should at least get out of the way.
Yet beneath the cooperative words of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has met repeatedly with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in recent weeks to plan the conference, many Russia experts say the United States has misread Russia’s mind-set and goals.
Russian policy “is not insane or irrational from [Russia’s] point of view,” said Fiona Hill, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They’re just waiting to see how it plays out.”
The Russians, Hill and other experts said, see the United States as the irrational player in the region, upsetting the status quo and adding fuel to sectarian conflicts in Russia’s own neighborhood. Recent territorial gains by Assad’s forces — and the Americans’ reluctance to supply their own arms — have only hardened the Russians’ resolve.
“They’re certainly serious about having a conference,” Hill said, but more for the purpose of “preventing any kind of unilateral action” by the United States than thinking that it will bring results.
Russian President Vladmir Putin “has based a fair bit of his domestic legitimacy on the idea that Russia goes its own way and does not take orders from the West, has its own friends and makes its own choices internationally, ” said Stephen Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Judged by almost any imaginable criteria,” he said, “Syria seems like a pretty good friend of Russia.”
At the same time, diplomats and analysts said Russia is making subtle efforts to reassert itself in the Middle East and is putting out the word that it plans to vigorously defend its interests.