Syria Is the ‘Hostage’ of Russia’s Ukrainian Adventure
It won’t be a stretch to say that Syria will be among the countries most affected by the Russian attack on Ukraine, with all its military and political implications and whether President Vladimir Putin manages to “change the regime” in Kyiv or languish in the “Ukrainian swamp.”
The situation in Syria has long been tied to other crises in recent years, such as the ones in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, given that the main players there are the Russians and Turks. The players had often exchanged blows on the front to deliver messages and carry out geopolitical deals. However, the clearest military connection lies between Ukraine and Russia:
– Assad-Yanukovych: After former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014, Putin retaliated to the revolution in Ukraine by annexing Crimea in March that same year. Moscow at the time also demanded that Damascus take a harder line at the peace talks that were being held in Geneva, adding that it should not yield to the Syrian revolution. During a meeting at the time with Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia and Special Representative of the President of Russia for the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told him he will not act like Yanukovych and flee Syria, choosing instead to “stay and persevere.”
– Military intervention: Even though Moscow had objected to the western intervention in Iraq and Libya, it yielded to Damascus and Tehran’s pleas that it intervene in Syria. In September 2015, Putin intervened militarily in Syria to prevent “regime change”. In exchange, Russia reaped major military privileges, most significant of which was establishing a permanent military base in Hmeimim and a naval base in Tartus.
Not only did Russia turn the tide of war in the regime’s favor, it also turned Syria into a military testing ground. Observers noted that the images of the fighting in Ukraine look largely like those that were coming out of western and central Syria in 2016.
– Warm waters: Deploying Russian forces by the Mediterranean had long been a czarist dream and it was achieved by transforming the small port of Tartus into a naval base, not too far from NATO’s borders in Turkey. Russia underlined this “strategic achievement” on the eve of the Ukrainian invasion by holding the largest naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean, where NATO forces were also holding drills. Moreover, Russian Defense Minister Serge Shoigu was at the Hmeimim to oversee the exercise, demonstrating that Moscow now views Syria as an “extension of its national security”.
– Symbolic signs: It was no coincidence that Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad was in Moscow the day Putin declared the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. Mikdad said the declaration was in line with international law and the United Nations Charter. Assad on Thursday hailed the attack on Ukraine as a “correction of history” after the break up of the Soviet Union. Syria had also previously recognized several separatist republics controlled by Moscow, a sign that it is part of the “Russian world” envisioned by Putin.
– Spearhead: Moscow views the Hmeimim base, which boasts the S-400 and S-300 systems, as the spearhead of its confrontation with NATO, which has a base in Incirlik in southern Turkey. Putin was able to win over Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who has been disappointed with the American support to Kurds in eastern Syria. The best example of this is Ankara’s refusal of Ukraine’s request to close the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian ships. In return, Shoigu, on his latest visit to Syria, rejected Damascus’ request to wage a wide-scale offensive against the Idlib province in the northwest.
– Iron Dome: Turkey is not the only one treading carefully with the Russian attack on Ukraine. Reports have said Israel has refused to offer military support to Kyiv because it fears angering Putin and having the freedom it has in attacking “Iranian positions” in Syria restricted, especially amid reports that one of the outcomes of the Ukrainian war would be further Russian-Iranian rapprochement.
– Contact lines: The “borders” of the three “zones of influence” in Syria have remained largely unchanged in the past two years. The confrontation in Ukraine may, however, expose them to several tests. Washington has declared that the collision avoidance agreement with Russia in Syria still stands. Moscow has also rejected Damascus’ request to attack Idlib. These “understandings” will undoubtedly be tested as developments in Ukraine unravel. The situation in Ukraine will likely also impact the fate of the resolution on the cross-border aid deliveries in Syria.
– Economic cost: The crisis in Ukraine will not only have political and military implications on Syria, but major economic ones as well, especially since Damascus relies heavily on food and oil support from Moscow to grapple with western sanctions.
Source: Asharq Al-Awsat
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Observatory.