Alex Levine's Blog

The Syrian Crisis as a Trade Conflict

July 5, 2017

The American view on the Syrian crisis is largely one of confusion and uncertainty. Generally, we Americans have a difficult time rationalizing what America’s purpose in the conflict should be. Still, we generally believe that Russia’s involvement is an attempt by Putin to create a puppet state out of an Assad-run country to use as an additional ally on the negotiating table against NATO and so on. What Americans fail to recognize, however, is just how important a stable Syria is for the Russian economy, and that having Assad in power, regardless of just how far under Putin’s control the man is, is possibly the sole end goal of Russia.

Tartous Port, Syria

Ever since the days of the Roman Empire, the region of Syria has been an incredibly wealthy strip of land, with Damascus serving as an important node along the Silk Road. Sitting at the crossroads between the East and West, and being the first point where the vital trade route touches the Mediterranean Sea, Syria has the potential to be a critical economic powerhouse just as the days of old. Of course, Syria today is one of the poorest regions in the Middle East due in no small part to colonization followed by dictatorships followed by today’s civil war. Furthermore, the importance of the Silk Road has largely been diminished by improvements in maritime technology allowing the majority of the world’s trade taking place across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

To the Russians, however, Syria may still prove to be an important region for trade. While Russia technically is not landlocked, it has very few usable ports, and essentially none that would allow it to take part in the lucrative oceanic trade of the modern era. Eastern Siberia is poor and unpopulated, and thus all trade there is fairly unimportant. To the West Russia has St. Petersburg and the black sea. However, the former is at the mercy of the Nordic countries, and therefore the EU, allowing passage through the Baltic, and is geographically distant from the ocean itself. To the south, Russia has few ports outside of Crimea, and holding on to this region may prove difficult for Russia as the sanctions brought upon it by the Western nations are wreaking havoc upon the nation’s economy. Even if Russia were to keep the territory, the waterway would be effectively useless if Turkey, a country which has less-than-amiable relations with Russia, simply decides to restrict access through the Bosporus. In both cases, Russia is at the mercy of nations with which it has had poor relations, and should the situation erupt, any waterway access would be cut off putting Russia in a dire situation.

In order to exist without fear of total economic isolation, Russia needs a port facing west that could not be easily restricted at a strait and has enough infrastructure to transport goods. An Atlantic route with these suppositions is not achievable, as this would mean invading stable EU nations, something that would obviously end poorly for Russia. Therefore, Russia must settle for Mediterranean access. Marching down south, annexing state after state until a port leading directly to Mediterranean is captured is obviously no longer an option in this day and age without risking swift military reprisals, and slowly annexing pieces of land in the caucuses would take far too long and the sanctions brought about each time would do far too much harm to the economy and stability of the nation than the territory could justify.

On the other hand, Syria could offer a sort of bypass to the entire situation. The nation offers access to the Mediterranean Sea while being fairly near to Russian lands, as well as being connected to other areas via the ancient Silk Road. Although the nation is not directly touching Russia, if the two nations agreed to trade they could do so through Turkey and Azerbaijan and Iran, who would have far greater difficulty justifying trade blockage against the much smaller nation. Furthermore, as access to the Mediterranean is not blocked by a strait, it would require a full naval blockade along the Syrian coast to stop trade, something that Turkey would have far greater difficulty in achieving than simply closing the Bosporus.

The problem, however, is that in order to have such a partner, Assad must remain in charge. Should the rebels win, Syria will become another Libya and fracturing again into lots of smaller factions or becoming a loose federation of nations such as Iraq, making a trade deal that satisfies all parties a daunting and likely very expensive task. Also the rebels would be American backed who would undoubtedly make the nation join in the embargo against Russia, ruining the prospect for a trade deal. The same goes for the Kurds, though also with the addition of the Syrian Kurd’s communist tendencies making trade a further nightmare as free trade would be heavily restricted. ISIS is simply out of the question. This leaves Assad as the only viable leader of Syria willing to cooperate with Russia.

Still, this leaves the question: would Russia puppet the Assad regime? To this I must answer “probably not.” Giving a concrete answer for what exactly Russia will do is extremely difficult to fully predict, largely due to the fact that a single man is overly represented in the power makeup of Russian politics. While Russia is not a dictatorship, Putin certainly has an incredibly strong grasp over Russia, and the very nature of concentrating power in a single man makes predicting an entire country’s actions far more difficult once as now we have to consider Putin’s various interpersonal relations and actions rather than examining the entire country on a macro level. Still, it would actually be in the country’s best interests to avoid anything beyond cordial trade relations with Syria. The United States has proven to trigger happy to launch sanctions against Russia if even the smallest whiff of underhanded politicking passes by, and so emphasizing the lawful nature of Russian-Syrian relations would not only make further sanctions hard to justify, but would put pressure on the United States to ease tensions with a nation that basically just played the hero and ended a bloody civil war without taking enough for itself besides a mutually beneficial trade deal. Currently, the west views Russia in a negative light, so making Russia into a stabilizer could help shift the narrative away from it’s the annexation of Crimea and into Russia’s stabilization of the Middle East. If Syria is found out to be in any way under Russian influence (and curious nations will certainly do whatever they can to find such influence) then further sanctions could certainly be expected, further leading to the damage being done to the economy. Everything must therefore be kept above table, and Russia must accept Syria as no more than a trade partner, though a very close one at that. Still, this would certainly be a strong enough reward to justify Russian intervention.

The existence of a stable Syria friendly to Russia would be beneficial to the economic interests of the latter. Due to the nature of the conflict, however, Russia is forced to back the Assad regime, as all other factions would be unable or unwilling to act as an intermediate trade route to Russia through the Caucuses which would allow Russia to circumvent possibly unfriendly nations. While the Russia’s strategic goals may conflict from what I proposed, the economic and diplomatic nature of the conflict insinuates a beneficent involvement from Russia, one aiming to stabilize rather than control the region. To this end, Putin must continue the war, and pull out once Assad is capable of securing power himself.

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