Syria and Russia see eye to eye

Bassel Oudat , Saturday 12 Mar 2022

In supporting Russia’s military operations against Ukraine, the Syrian regime has underlined its close military and other links to Russia,

Syria and Russia see eye to eye
Putin and Al-Assad light candles while visiting an Orthodox cathedral for Christmas, in Damascus, Syria, 7 January 2020 (photos: AP)

Syria was one of five countries that opposed last week’s UN General Assembly Resolution condemning Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. The resolution urged Moscow to immediately halt the use of force against Kyiv and immediately withdraw all its military forces from Ukraine. By opposing the resolution, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad took a contrary position to 141 other UN countries.

Syria believes the West provoked Russia and forced it to resort to military action in Ukraine. It has pledged to support Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Al-Assad declaring his support for the Russian military operation in Ukraine and describing actions by the West towards Russia as “hysteria”.

Al-Assad said that Russia “is not only defending itself, but the entire world, and the principles of justice and humanity,” according to a read-out of a telephone conversation between the Syrian president and Putin. He claimed that what is occurring is “a correction of history and a restoring of the balance after it tipped when the Soviet Union was dismantled.”

“The enemy that the Syrian and Russian armies are fighting is one. In Syria, it is extremism, and in Ukraine it is Nazism,” Al-Assad said.

The statements were preceded by recognition by the Syrian regime of the secession of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine as independent republics. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad said Syria “supports President Putin’s decision to recognise the republics of Luhansk and Donetsk and will cooperate with them.”

The Syrian regime also recognised the independence of the two republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that seceded from Georgia after a Russian military operation in 2008. It recognised the independence of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The relationship between Syria and Russia is strategic, though it evolved into more than that after Russia began its direct military intervention in Syria in 2015. Russia has gained much influence in Syria as a result, and Syria’s leadership is always seeking to repay Russia for the decades of support it has extended to the country since the days of former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 restored Al-Assad’s power after he was close to losing areas under his control and weakened the armed Syrian opposition. According to statements by senior Russian military officials, Russia also took advantage of the Syrian conflict as a testing ground for weapons and tactics it is now using in Ukraine.

Many observers have drawn parallels between what Russia is doing in Ukraine and its actions in Syria. The comparisons have prompted Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to ask NATO to prevent Putin from transforming his country into another Syria. Addressing the NATO countries, Kuleba said, “act now before it is too late. Do not let Putin turn Ukraine into Syria.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has also expressed concern that “the worst is yet to come” in the Russian-Ukrainian war. “We should fear a siege, which the Russians are accustomed to doing. Remember Aleppo and Grozny,” Le Drian said, referring to cities in Syria and Chechnya, respectively, bombed by Russia.

Syria’s opposition has sided with Ukraine and criticised the West, led by the US, for its relative inaction in Syria. “There is a great difference between the position of the international community towards Ukraine and its position on Syria,” said Salem Al-Meslet, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

“The international community must bear responsibility in Syria and in Ukraine,” he said, with the Syrian Network for Human Rights criticising what it described as “the West’s double standards towards Russia in Syria and Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has begun to feel the impact of its support for Moscow, especially after the start of the sanctions against Russia. Within days, the Syrian lira dropped sharply on the international exchanges, and Syrian officials hinted at an imminent crisis in supplies of oil and wheat.

Syria’s support for Russia has also been manifested on the political plane. Coinciding with the 11th anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict, the US Embassy in Damascus has announced that March will be a “month of accountability” for the Syrian regime and that the “impunity will end” in Syria.

The US called a meeting in Washington of the Friends of Syria group on 3 March, which included the US, Turkey, France, Germany, Norway, the UK, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The attendees reiterated their commitment to seeking a political solution to the Syrian crisis in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Commenting on Washington’s new interest in Syria, Syrian opposition member Radwan Ziadeh said that “I expect the Biden administration is working on developing a political and military strategy for Syria after what happened in Ukraine. It could include prioritising a push for a political transition and removing Al-Assad.”

“Neither the Security Council nor the UN can do a thing because Russia is a permanent member [of the Security Council]. On the Syrian issue, Russia used its veto 13 times to paralyse the work of the Security Council, blocking the condemnation of the Syrian regime and preventing the International Criminal Court from investigating war crimes or crimes against humanity committed in Syria,” Ziadeh said.

The Syrian regime sent its National Security Chief Ali Mamlouk to Tehran, where he met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Al-Assad also received Ali Asghar Khaji, a senior adviser to Iran’s foreign minister, to discuss boosting cooperation between the two countries.

This sent a message that Russia is not the only ally of the Syrian regime, and that Iran is also its stalwart ally. It shows that Tehran is ready to “fill the vacuum” in Syria if Russia is distracted by a long war in Ukraine, especially since Iran is likely to sign a nuclear deal with the international community soon.

For ordinary Syrians, the war in Ukraine has made their lives worse. Amid opposite positions by the Syrian regime and the opposition on the war in Ukraine, there have been reports that the war has become a destination for Syrian young people looking for a “new battle” where warlords are looking to profiter.

Recruiters are active in Damascus and areas under regime control, signing up young people to fight alongside the Russian army in Ukraine. They include 23,000 combatants who have fought alongside the Syrian regime as part of militias affiliated with the Syrian president’s cousin and National Defence Forces.

The young people are said to be being paid $7,000 over seven months to “defend facilities” in Ukraine, which suggests that the Russian Hmeimim Base in Syria, the main hub of recruitment, anticipates the Ukraine war will last for months, not days.

Other reports say that Syrians have decided to volunteer to fight alongside Ukrainian forces, especially after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky opened the door for volunteers from around the world to join his army’s fight. It is believed that some have already arrived in Ukraine from Turkey and camps in northern Syria.

Syrian political analyst Saeed Moqbel said that “the Syrian situation has become more complicated with the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Syria’s future is not clear because its fate depends on the volition of countries battling and interfering in the country. Syria has become a weapon in the hands of players in global wars.”

About 90 per cent of Syrians now live on the edge of poverty. 12.4 million, or 60 per cent of the population, suffer from food insecurity, the Syrian lira is in freefall, and food prices are skyrocketing. Meanwhile, political solutions to the crisis are blocked, the regime is tightening its grip on power, and the military weakness of both the opposition and regime makes them both dependent on the strength of others.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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