Gulshan Dietl replies: Russia has maintained friendly relations with Syria for decades that go back to President Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad and the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet time, the country has maintained its Black Sea Fleet in the Syrian port of Tartous, which has been its only naval base in the Mediterranean. Syria has agreed to host a permanent base for the Russian nuclear-armed warships, and the Russians are dredging the port to accommodate larger naval vessels. Russia sells substantial amount of weapons to Syria and has stakes in the infrastructure, energy and tourism sectors of the Syrian economy.
The US, on the other hand, has put Syria on its list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979. The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union contributed to the hostile US perceptions of Syria. The Syrian military presence in Lebanon and Syrian support to the radical/terrorist Palestinian groups added to the estrangement between the two countries. According to the revelations by the Wikileaks, the US has been giving financial support to the anti-Assad rebels since 2010. In August 2011, after the uprising began in Syria, President Barack Obama called on Assad to step down.
The diametrically opposite Russian-American policies in Syria have a wider context. In the West Asian region, Syria, Iran, Hizbollah organisation in Lebanon, the Palestinian resistance groups of Hamas and Islamic Jihad constitute an anti-Israel, anti-US front. Removing Assad and replacing him by an amenable successor would have served to diminish this front; and more particularly, the Iranian influence in the region.
As the things stand today, the US and Russia have been coordinating their policies on Syria. Among the anti-Assad rebels, the extreme al-Qaeda affiliated groups are the most powerful and may emerge as the post-Assad regime. The US and Russia are equally and genuinely concerned about this possibility.