Russia's support for Syria dates back to the days of the Soviet Union. The continuing partnership can be attributed to several factors- historic ties, economic interests and geopolitics. 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 kilometres east of Homs is being constructed by Stroytransgaz, a Russian company.

Russia has major geopolitical and strategic considerations that dictate supporting Damascus. As the world's largest oil producer and second largest exporter, Russia is in no need of oil supplies from the Arab world. Moscow also reaps the benefits of controlling energy markets. Russia therefore has no need to appease the predominantly Sunni Arab bloc, which is currently acting in tandem with the West in opposing the Assad regime.

In addition, Russia has its own problems with Islamists in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and it fears rebellions similar to Syria's breaking out in such areas as Dagestan, Abkhazia, Ingushetia or Chechnya. By supporting its ally in Syria, the Kremlin is sending a strong message to dissident groups that might want to fight unpopular governments within the Russian federation. The Syrian regime also provides Russia with key strategic asset: a deep warm-water port at Tartus. The lack of such a port has plagued Russia's global ambitions for centuries. The importance of the port may not be as great as it was in Soviet times, but unfettered access to the high seas remains a driving force of Russian strategic thinking as Russia's main ports are either ice-locked for much of the year or land-locked by straits controlled by other powers.

Tartus, which garrisons Moscow's growing Mediterranean fleet, is worth defending for the Kremlin. The recent shipment of arms delivered to the port underscores Russia's commitment to its multi-billion arm deal while ignoring an EU arms embargo. The port is being upgraded to accomodate larger vessels and possibly nuclear-armed warships in the future.

In the end, Russia's bold declarations and actions in support of the Syrian regime are cold calculations meant to revive its position as a global superpower. While Russia has considerable economic and strategic reasons for the continued support, Syria above all offers the Kremlin the chance to counter the West's influence in the Middle East. Backing the Assad regime is not based on ideological or moral convictions, but on pure power politics.

It is worth recalling that permanent access to the Mediterranean has been the dream of Russia's rulers for several centuries. Already in the second half of the 18th century for operations against Turkey, squadrons of the Baltic Fleet were sent to the Mediterranean. The rebirth of Russia's naval presence in the Mediterranean began in the 1950s with the aim of countering NATO forces and to support Moscow's interests in the Middle East. In 1958, a permanent base for Soviet submarines was established at Vlyora in Albania,but in spite of the establishment of close relations with a range of middle eastern Arabic states, the Soviet Union never acquired a permanent naval base in this region, and the powerful Soviet naval forces in the Mediterranean (Fifth Operational Squadron) had to anchor at small plots in the neutral waters off the coast of Tunisia and Libya. Only in 1984 were servicing stations at Tartus and Latakia, established for occasional servicing calls for Soviet warships.

The appearance of Russian ships in Tartus for any period of time will represent a dramatic reinforcement of Russia's naval potential in the Mediterranean, even when compared to the cold war period. This may explain the strong Russian stance regarding Syria and the resaons why the Kremlin is not inclined to make any concessions.

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