Ukraine and Syria

Nevine Mossaad
Friday 18 Mar 2022

Nevine Mosaad looks at the Ukraine war through the Syrian lens.

Syria was an exception to the majority of countries that voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is the arena that has reflected divergent votes on the resolution on which 141 countries were in favour and five opposed while 35 abstained. As for the parties engaged in the Syrian conflict, Syria voted against the resolution, Turkey and Israel voted in favour, and Iran abstained. Syria thus presents us with a sort of miniature map of the international voting pattern on the resolution. But this map, featuring the most salient players in Syria (including Damascus itself) is actually shaped by an extremely complex weave of relations between regional and international parties. 

Certainly, the conflict in Syria is a factor that helps explain how each country voted, but it is not the only factor. Starting with Syria, Damascus’ close relations with Moscow have long been a cornerstone of Syrian foreign policy. Most importantly, the Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015 totally reversed the military balance of power in that conflict. Whereas President Bashar Al-Assad’s aims at that point had been reduced to defending “beneficial Syria,” the term he used to refer to the Syrian heartland that he still controlled, against the fierce assault of terrorist groups and their supporters, those groups have since been driven back into Idlib while the regime and its supporters have regained control over most Syrian territory. Therefore, Syria’s opposition to the UN General Assembly resolution was a foregone conclusion.

Both Turkey and Iran are Russia’s partners in the Sochi and Astana mechanisms which sidelined the UN’s approach to the conflict. Turkey and Russia have close and growing trade and military relations. But Turkey is also a member of NATO and therefore obliged to maintain a minimal degree of conformity with the alliance’s policy stances. So it was not surprising that Ankara voted in favour of the resolution to condemn Russia. However, it tried to lighten the effect of this by offering to serve as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv. That Moscow agreed to this is a sign that nothing significant has changed in Turkish-Russian bilateral relations.

To a certain extent, Israel is in the same position as Turkey. Israel and Russia still coordinate closely in Syria. Thanks to Moscow’s understanding of the reasons behind Israel’s ongoing strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, it was possible to remove Iranian forces from the vicinity of the Syrian-Israeli border. Israel also depends on Russia, as one of its partners in the Iranian nuclear agreement, to help curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In addition, Israel and Russia cooperate on trade and security and there is a large community of Russian origin in Israel. But Israel also has close relations with Ukraine and its president, as well as a significant community of Ukrainian origin. Accordingly, while Israel condemned the Russian intervention in Ukraine, like Turkey, it offered to mediate; then it coordinated with Ankara in this effort. 

Iran is allied with Russia in Syria. Since the Iranian Revolution, Tehran has maintained generally good relations with Russia, in contrast to the US which it regards as “the great devil”. True, Iran sided with the US against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, but that is now ancient history. During the past two decades, Russian-Iranian commercial and economic relations have grown increasingly close, so much so that Russia insisted that Iranian-Russian trade should be exempted from the international sanctions regime against Iran during the negotiations to revive the nuclear agreement. So why did Iran not vote against the UN General Assembly resolution? Most probably this is because it did not want to further complicate its relations with the US and the EU at this delicate juncture in the negotiations in Vienna.

What are the implications of Syrian, Turkish, Israeli and Iranian voting behaviour in the UN on the Syrian conflict itself? As we have observed, Turkey and Israel balanced their positions in the General Assembly with carefully considered positive steps towards Russia. It is particularly noteworthy that the Israeli Defence Force asked the Israeli political leadership to remain neutral on the Ukrainian question in the light of the considerable interests that Israel has in common with Russia in Syria and elsewhere. Most likely, the Russian-Israeli and Russian-Turkish lines of contact in Syria will continue as they are in terms of protecting the Israeli border against a threat from Syrian territory and in terms of the management of the situation in Idlib as the stronghold of Turkish-backed militias. 

Nor is any change likely to happen in Russian support for the Assad regime. Naturally, this is not just due to the “No” vote cast by Damascus’ representative in the UN. It is also because of the logistic facilities Russia has obtained in the Syrian port of Tartus which now supply auxiliary support for military operations in Ukraine. In like manner, Russian-Iranian coordination will continue in Syria even though Tehran did not openly side with Russia in the UN vote. Iranian influence in Syria is still needed in order to counter that of Turkey and Israel. 

It is important to bear in mind that this forecast on the interplay between the above-mentioned powers in Syria depends on Russia’s ability to accomplish its main aims in Ukraine in the short term. If this condition is not met, then we will have another story.

* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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