Many observers do not see a strong connection between the Syrian crisis and the war in Ukraine. Syria is an Arab country in the Middle East, small in size and capabilities, with minimal global influence. Ukraine, on the other hand, is a Slavic country in Eastern Europe bordering Russia in the east and Europe in the west, and it is of significant strategic weight and security for Europe.
However, there is a link between these two global crises. In fact, Syria’s fate hinges on the outcome of the Ukrainian war and of the conflict between Russia and the West in Ukraine.
Since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, Russia has taken a greater interest in Syria and extended its political support to the regime there. Moscow mustered its influence to block regime change in Damascus and convinced Washington to revise its position calling for the overthrow of the regime through a deal that resulted in UN Security Council Resolution 2118 in 2013.
The resolution required the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to surrender its chemical weapons, and Washington agreed to launch a political process that began in January 2014 (Geneva II).
The Maidan Uprising in Ukraine began around the same time, resulting in Ukrainian President Viktor Yanokovych fleeing to Russia and Moscow losing its influence in Ukraine. Kyiv fell into the arms of the West and soon began asking to join NATO and extract itself from Russia’s sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, Russia became a key influencer in the Syrian regime’s political and military decisions and achieved its goal of establishing a foothold on the Mediterranean. Its presence in Syria relaunched it into the global arena as a superpower, and it began negotiating rigorously with the West on the Syrian crisis.
In parallel, Russia lost Ukraine and received a serious blow from the West, however. The US and its allies have since slapped harsh sanctions on Moscow, and Russia’s formerly powerful role in the Euro-Asian arena is under threat.
The Middle Eastern victory for Russia and its European defeat have directly impacted the Syrian conflict, connecting the two issues together. Russia immediately began weaving the two issues together in order to use its leverage in the Middle East to influence its war in Ukraine.
The first repercussion of the battle over Ukraine was the failure of the Geneva II talks, as Moscow immediately began advising the Syrian regime to dig in its heels during the negotiations. Russia also rendered useless the Geneva Declaration, which called for free elections in Syria under international monitoring.
It insisted instead that presidential elections in Syria could only take place as part of a political solution reached between the regime and opposition. Moscow also supported the June 2014 elections in Syria that were held without international supervision or approval.
As tensions escalated between Russia and the West, Moscow took a more hardline position on Syria. In Ukraine, Russia supported the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in 2015, and in the same year it used direct military intervention in Syria and established land, air, and naval bases.
The Syrian regime supported the Russian positions on Ukraine and officially recognised the “sovereignty of Luhansk and Donetsk” earlier this year. Previously, it had recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which separated from Georgia following the Russian military intervention in 2008. It has also cut off diplomatic relations with Ukraine and declared its support for Russia’s war there.
Al-Assad declared that “the enemy is one” and what was taking place in Ukraine “is a correction of history and a restoring of balance to the world.” His special adviser Luna Al-Shibl said that “Syria will support Russia in overcoming obstacles, just as Moscow has done for Damascus.”
While Washington was determined to curb Moscow’s ambitions in Eastern Europe and rein in Russia’s desire to restore its global role through Ukraine, Russia launched the Astana Process on Syria in 2017 as an alternative to the Geneva talks.
This was an attempt to eliminate any role for the UN or international community in the Syrian cause and was part of a Russia-Iran-Turkey alliance attempting to control Syria’s future.
Three years ago, Moscow also began threatening to use its veto power against a UN Security Council Resolution that would allow the passage of humanitarian aid to northern Syria, which was supported by Europe and the US. Blocking the resolution would have prevented aid from reaching areas inside Syria that are not under regime control.
As the West refused to abandon an international political resolution of the Syrian crisis and the UN insisted that Syria would remain on its agenda, Moscow became more invested in the country.
It blocked the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and demanded a venue change for its meetings under the pretext that Geneva is not a neutral venue even though the meetings are among Syrian delegates.
The message was that Moscow would not spare any leverage it could gain against the West, in order to pressure the latter to change its position on the Ukraine war.
There are many reasons why the Syrian regime supports Russia in its war on Ukraine. Russia has been the main factor that has prevented the Syrian regime from being toppled by supplying it with military, political, diplomatic and economic support.
Syrian researcher Rami Rizk said that “the Syrian regime has two allies: Russia and Iran. The regime understands that its primary support comes from Moscow, which has used its veto power 17 times since 2011 to block Security Council attempts to protect Syrian civilians. It has blocked condemnations of the Syrian regime and blocked UN sanctions against Damascus.”
“The regime cannot count on Iran because it is unable to protect it in the same way. Therefore, the regime’s support for Moscow is axiomatic and is in whatever form Moscow demands. Supporting Moscow in its war on Ukraine is the least it can do as a token of its loyalty.”
Bassam Barbandi, a former Syrian diplomat, said that “the Syrian regime cannot step outside Russia’s position on Ukraine, because its very existence relies on Russian protection.”
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has declared its solidarity with Ukraine and condemned the Russian war. It describes events in Ukraine as similar to those in Syria: “random bombings; attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets; strikes on towns under siege accompanied by false propaganda; and endless queues of refugees.”
The opposition believes that a Russian victory in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin achieving his goals of escalating the confrontation with the West will negatively impact Syria and frustrate a political solution based on Resolution 2245.
If Moscow wins the Ukraine war, it will be difficult to force it to compromise on Syria. Its global influence will be greater, and it will impose its vision on the Syrian conflict, which will be unacceptable to the opposition.
Saeed Moqbel, a Syrian opposition analyst, said that “since the beginning of the Ukraine war, the double standards of the West have been very apparent when compared with how it dealt with the Syrian and Ukraine crises. In Syria, Russia has bombed and destroyed more than it has in Ukraine, but the West did not move against it like it did on Ukraine.”
“Russia has not paid any tangible price for its military intervention in Syria. A Russian victory in Ukraine will force the West to be more submissive on Syria and make it unable to impose any balanced political solution.”
The relationship between Russia and Iran in Syria has been moving slowly in the light of Syria’s support of Russia in Ukraine. After cool relations and Russia placing red lines around Iran in Syria, the two sides have once again found common ground despite their disagreement on methods, goals and ideologies.
It is clear that Russia’s presence in Syria is no longer merely of strategic interest to Moscow or a desire to recover its past glory. It has become an existential necessity, from which it currently derives its strength as a superpower.
Through Syria, Russia is breaking out of its global isolation and remaining connected to countries in the region, especially the Arab and Gulf states. By maintaining control over Syria, it gains leverage in the face of the West in Ukraine. If Moscow loses its gamble in Ukraine, there will be many serious questions about the future of the Syrian crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly