The Russian Federation led the largest offensive in European history since World War II in Ukraine on February 24. Since the beginning of the world’s newest war, NATO and the United States have slapped significant sanctions onto Russia’s energy sector, eliminated its ability to participate in in the SWIFT international banking system, and urged countries to acquire energy from alternative sources, lessening the world’s dependency on Russian oil.
On April 7th, countries voted to remove Russia from the United Nation’s Human Rights Council while continuing to condemn Russia’s actions and slaughter of Ukrainian civilians through social media posts and official statements. The countries that voted against its removal included Belarus, China, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Syria. Russia’s relations with each of these countries has strengthened and changed since the war in Ukraine began, but the most significant of these Russia-supporting nations is Syria, due to the implications present for the entire Middle East and North Africa region.
An Intertwined Tale
Since 2015, Russia has maintained a strong military presence in Syria. Moscow reported in August 2018 that it had deployed over 63,000 troops to the Middle Eastern country in a video uploaded by the Russian Defense Ministry. Since the war has calmed, Russia has maintained strategic bases in the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus, army bases concentrated in the Northwest region, as well as some bases speckled throughout the region near famous landmarks, like the ancient city of Palmyra, a former ISIS target built in 40 B.C. Air missile defense systems, ground-attack bombers, warships, and submarines have played significant roles in Russia’s presence in Syria and its relentless support for dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Moscow reported in August 2018 that it had deployed over 63,000 troops to Syria.
While Russia’s activities in Syria receded in parallel with the civil war, its presence endures and its ventures have recently escalated leading to the Ukraine war. According to a publication based in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, the Russian Wagner militia and official Russian army have been actively recruiting Syrians who fought in Libya to fight in Ukraine for a mere $200-300 USD. The Wagner militia, which completed supportive tasks for Assad during the height of the civil war –– such as acquiring control of oil fields –– has also deployed its own fighters in Ukraine over the past few months.
Historically, Putin’s exchanges with Assad have not been purely militaristic. The two have also signed multiple energy and trade agreements, such as handing over control of Tartus, Syria’s largest port, to Russian firm Stroytransgaz. Other deals include phosphate extraction, developing oil fields, and new cultural exchange programs offered at universities throughout Syria which teach the Russian language and culture to local students.
Complicated Friendships and Shared Enemies
Russian-Syrian relations date back to the Cold War when the Syrian Arab Republic strongly defended Moscow and its opposition to the spread of Western powers. As their relationship developed, the financial support for the Syrian Ba’ath Party simultaneously grew. Directly following the 1966 Syrian Coup D’état, the rise of the Ba’th Party provided the Soviets multiple avenues through which they began to support Syria and gained its first strategic position in the Middle East –– the port at Tartus.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia maintained relations with the Assad regime.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia maintained relations with the Assad regime. Just prior to the eruption of the Arab Spring, a hopeful American ambassador named Robert Ford had multiple conversations with Syrian officials, including discussions about the developing protests. Ford believed that Assad might choose to respond to the protests with action supporting a democratic transition, leading Syria to be the next hopeful democracy in the Middle East, and a new Western ally. To the contrary, however, Assad’s violent response to the protests made possible by Russian financial support and a pro-Assad military crushed American hopes that Assad would respond peacefully.
[Reemerging Fault Lines: What Russia’s War in Ukraine Means for Syria]
[Ukraine Crisis Could Prompt Russia’s Middle East Expansion]
Since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011, the world watched as the violent civil war intensified, creating the perfect environment for the growth of the Islamic State (also known as ISIL, ISIS and IS). Islamic extremism fueled further violence, sent waves of refugees into Europe, and welcomed an opportunity for Russian military support towards the Syrian regime, which provided it with bases throughout Northwestern Syria and positions on the coast.
With April 14 marking the seventh week of the military incursion, Ukrainians have experienced eerily similar conditions to Syrians who witnessed Russian-backed attacks and cluster bombs, precipitating besieged cities, and attacks on refugees attempting to exit the country –– such as the train station attack in Kramatorsk, which left more than fifty civilians dead. Similarly, Western forces accused Russia of bombing refugees fleeing the Syrian War at the Hadalat refugee camp in July 2016, leaving forty wounded.
Ukraine recently accused Russia of war crimes, similar to the accusations it faced in Syria. Now, Ukraine is soon to be in the hands of a familiar general –– Aleksandr Dvornikov. Dvornikov, known as the “Butcher of Syria,” led Russian activities in Syria and began turning the tide in Assad’s favor after trivializing defeats by the rebels. Now, with Putin facing similar defeats and failed logistics, the general will be setting his sights to Ukraine for further “butchering.”
Russian relations with Syrian allies have intensified since the fighting in Ukraine began.
Russian relations with Syrian allies have intensified since the fighting in Ukraine began –– and even slightly beforehand as well. Joint military drills, military inspections, and meetings among army officials slowly increased in pace leading up to Russia’s invasion. With the future of Ukraine unknown, Russia’s trials and triumphs in Syria provide interesting insight into Putin’s motivations. Countering Western influence has been on Moscow’s itinerary since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. As American authority increased in the Middle East in the early 2000s through relations with Israel and Jordan, and as China forged alliances with regional players like Saudi Arabia and Iran, Russia began to feel left out of the hegemonic powers and their ability to wield the influence it formerly held as the Soviet Union. Thus, developing and maintaining positions in the Mediterranean and Black Seas to counter Western influence, in the forms of military bases and NATO, became Putin’s mainstay to increase Russia’s presence and voice its opinions onto the global stage.
Observing Russia’s lasting presence in Syria to counter the West suggests implications for its presence in Ukraine. Driven by similar motivations, Russia aims to spread its power as NATO attempted to spread its with the possibility of Ukraine’s membership. As with Crimea, it is likely that Putin will not cede every inch of territory back to Ukraine once the fighting has ceased. Russia will continuously express its disapproval of Western expansion at its borders, mimicking its current presence in Syria –– quiet, but boldly opinionated in private on Assad’s policies –– calling the shots for Putin and Assad’s mutual benefit.
Although, in the case of Ukraine, whether Russia’s presence benefits both countries is dubious. Looking forward, Russia will undoubtably continue to protest Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and use military aggression as its method of expression. The future of Russia’s influence has been indefinitely established physically and metaphorically, and is likely to continue for decades to come. However, Ukraine’s fate remains unclear, and the world must wait to see whether it will develop into a Syria 2.0, or into another victim of Russia’s brutal sphere of influence.