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Russian rubles for Damascus?

The Syrian regime has few allies left, but it can still rely on Russia and China. Moscow is said to be supporting the Syrian government financially.

United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon phoned him, special envoy Kofi Annan offered him compromises, and sanctions have been imposed on members of his government – nothing seems to have impressed President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian head of state is coming under increased pressure internationally, but two major governments, in Moscow and Beijing, continue to cover his back – even 18 months after the uprising against the Syrian regime began.

Lack of crude oil products

Jamil, Syria's deputy head of government,

Jamil, Syria's deputy head of government, hopes Russia will help

The Syrian government is no longer just politically dependent on Russia, it also reportedly needs Moscow's financial support. Media reports suggest that the government in Damascus asked the Kremlin for financial and economic help in early August 2012. Syria has to offset the consequences of western sanctions, which also include Syrian crude oil exports. According to the reports, during negotiations in Moscow, deputy head of government Qadri Jamil expressed particular concern over a lack of crude oil products such as diesel. Russian news agency RIA Novosti said Russia intends to look into the request. Observers estimate that Syria will soon have used up its currency reserves, amounting to an equivalent of 14 billion euros ($17.3 billion).

Advantages for Moscow

"Russia has accepted the task of supporting Syria economically in the current situation," Jamil is quoted as saying. But Damascus is not the only side benefiting - Moscow also sees the advantages. "Russia is interested in keeping a foot in the door in the Middle East," says Gerhard Fulda, a former German ambassador who spent many years as a diplomat in Arab countries. "It's one of the few remaining areas where Russia can still shape global politics."

Syria today represents what's left of Soviet influence in a region Russia once counted as part of its sphere of influence. Not so long ago, this influence was further reduced when Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi was toppled.

Tartus base, Syria

Tartus in Syria is an important flotilla base for Russia

With its veto in the UN Security Council, Russia has so far managed to block any attempt by the international community to clamp down on the Syrian regime. The veto comes as no surprise. For decades now, Russia has delivered weapons to Syria. The relatively poor Arab republic can't keep up with the financial resources in the nearby Gulf States and buys whatever it can get hold of and afford. In return, Syria grants Moscow access to its Mediterranean harbor, the flotilla base in the Syrian town of Tartus. Losing this harbor would push the Russians back to the Black Sea – a drastic setback for Russia's ambitions.

Concern about possible political overthrow

Syria's, Russia's and China's UN ambassadors in conversation

Russia has consistently blocked the UN Security Council on Syria

The Russian government also supports the Syrian regime because it fears the possible consequences of a political overthrow, says Fulda. He believes that "one of the alternatives to Assad is a Sunni or possibly even a fundamentalist government." That could potentially have spill-over effects in the Islamist republics in Central Asia. Russia has a strong interest of its own there, in the states that used to belong to the Soviet Union, where it is still the regional and protective power.

Like China, Russia wants to lessen the influence in the region of the West and its allies such as Saudi Arabia. That's why Moscow not only supports Syria, it also cooperates with Iran, Syria's closest ally. Russia quite obviously doesn't have a problem with the human rights violations perpetrated by the Assad regime, so it seems plausible that Russian rubles will continue to flow to Damascus.

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