Why Is Russia in Syria? A first-hand report from Mococw

It’s for many of the same bad reasons used by the United States to justify its military interventions.


by Reese Erlich

August 1, 2019, The Progressive

MOSCOW — I’m ankle deep in mud, on a path to a working-class housing project in Moscow following a late spring drenching rain. I’m on my way to meet Hassan, a Palestinian born in Syria, and Angelica, a Russian, who have been married for thirty years. My boots are covered in muck. Luckily, both Russian and Arab hospitality mandate shoe removal prior to entering a home. On arrival, I am offered tea, coffee, and sweets. I ask for Palestinian coffee. It is strong and bitter.

Hassan and Angelica tell me of their early romance, their leaving Moscow for Damascus just before the Arab Spring, and the horrors inflicted by U.S.-backed rebels, the Syrian government, and Russian troops. They ask that I use first-name pseudonyms because their critical views of Russian policy could cause repercussions from their employers.

I reported from the Syrian-Iraqi border in 2014 as President Barack Obama started bombing Syria with a promise there would be no U.S. “boots on the ground.” Today there are plans to reduce U.S. troops in northern Syria from about 2,000 to about 1,000. Similarly, some 63,000 Russian troops have seen combat in Syria as of last year. President Vladimir Putin promised a withdrawal of troops. But the Russian air force and navy have set up permanent military bases there. Hassan and Angelica’s story perfectly illustrates the human cost of outside military intervention in Syria.

Hassan is a Palestinian communist who came to Moscow to attend university in 1989. Angelica, also then a student, met him through mutual friends. After a few months of friendship, they decided to marry.

Angelica tells me her family was concerned at first because he was Arab and Muslim. “But then my mom met him and everything was OK,” she says. “As my babushka [grandmother] said, ‘It’s the person that is important, not religion.’ It was our Soviet upbringing, our internationalism.”

Hassan became a Russian citizen. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Corrupt officials bought state companies on the cheap, sold off their assets, and drove them into bankruptcy. Organized crime fought gun battles in the streets. Efforts to turn Russian society into a U.S.-style market economy in a matter of two or three years through shock therapy led the economy to collapse. Hassan and Angelica managed to weather the storm and moved to Damascus in 2010.

That timing wasn’t great either. The couple moved to Yarmouk camp, the Palestinian district of Damascus, not long before the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia. In early 2011, mass demonstrations broke out in countries backed by the United States: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and others. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad boasted about his anti-imperialist policies abroad and popular support at home. “Syria is stable,” he told The Wall Street Journal in January 2011. “Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.”

But by March 15, mass demonstrations had begun in Syria. Hassan was not surprised. “I’m from that region and know how the authorities act,” he tells me. “They do nothing for people and just steal.” Nor was he surprised that Russia backed Assad politically, economically, and with military advisers. Syria and the Soviet Union had close relations going back to the 1960s, when the Soviets supported Arab nationalists against the U.S./Israel alliance and established a small naval base in northern Syria.

As the protests continued and rebels took up arms, Syrian government repression got worse. People displaced from their homes flooded into Yarmouk. They stayed in mosques and schools.

“We helped them with food and bedding,” Angelica recalls. “So we knew who was in that mosque.” Later, Syrian government and Russian planes bombed the mosques and schools, claiming they housed terrorists. “The [Assad] regime and Russia just lied,” says Angelica.

Before the civil war, Yarmouk housed about 260,000 people. In 2014, after the bombings and fighting between pro-government and rebel groups, the population shrank to 20,000. (Today, only hundreds remain.)

Extremist groups backed mainly by the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were gaining territory in various parts of Syria. Hassan felt Angelica’s life was at risk because she was a foreigner.

“I pushed her to leave,” Hassan relates. “She’s white. Our child is white. So it was very dangerous.”

Angelica and their son returned to Russia in 2013, followed by Hassan some months later. Hassan opposes all foreign involvement in Syria’s complicated civil war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. He says all foreign powers—whether Russian, Iranian, Turkish, or American—had justifications for their presence. For Russian leaders, “it was like Russia’s dream from long ago, from the Czarist era. They wanted to reach a warm water port.”

But when Angelica discussed her observations with friends in Moscow, she hit a brick wall. Most Russians believed the government version that the soldiers were there to protect a legitimate government and would be coming home soon.

“The people wouldn’t believe me,” says Angelica, “because they were brainwashed.”

Starting in 2015, Putin seriously escalated Russia’s military commitment by sending jet fighters and an estimated 4,000 troops to Syria. By 2017, Putin announced, “a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home.”

But apparently the soldiers had a hard time finding the border, as Russian troops still remain in Syria. By the end of 2017, the two countries ratified a military bases agreement that allowed for a long-term Russian presence.

The United States, too, openly waged war in Syria, beginning with an air campaign in September 2014 by then-President Barack Obama. It has since launched airstrikes on at least 17,000 locations throughout Syria.

Once in Syria, Russia vastly expanded what had been a small naval repair facility into a major base. It also built a large air force base. In 2017, Syria and Russia agreed to a forty-nine-year lease with the option of extending the agreement for another twenty-five years.

Russian officials tell me the military intervention is justified to protect their country’s legitimate national interests. They say it seeks to keep oil and gas channels open to Russian trade, fight extremist political Islam so it will not spread to Russia, and protect its military bases.

In reality, the Syrian war runs counter to the interests of the Russian people, says Boris Kagarlitsky, a Marxist critic of Putin and director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. Russian policy “has nothing to do with any long-term strategy or any kind of national interest,” he tells me.

The Russian military-industrial complex makes huge profits from the Syrian war, and construction companies stand to do so as well with contracts to rebuild parts of Syria.

For many years, Russia sold arms to the dictatorship of former president Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. Russia recently announced the sale of sophisticated S-400 missiles to Turkey.

“The Russian leadership is extremely pragmatic and cynical,” Kagarlitsky says. “They will make deals with anyone who offers them profit.”

Russia’s pro-war forces are also well-organized. Meet Sergey Timokhin, whom I interviewed in Moscow. He stands ramrod straight and sports a short, military-style haircut. He wears a lapel pin with crossed Syrian and Russian flags. Timokhin is a retired career army colonel who strongly defends the Russian role in the Middle East. He heads up a veterans’ organization with influence at the Kremlin.

Timokhin spent two years in Syria, during a deployment of several thousand troops from 1983 to 1985. In the summer of 1982, with U.S. backing, Israel invaded Lebanon in an effort to wipe out the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israel attacked Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon, destroying nineteen anti-aircraft batteries and dozens of jets. In response, the U.S.S.R. secretly sent troops to Syria.

Soviet soldiers donned civilian clothes and boarded a cruise ship disguised as tourists. When the ship docked in Syria, they put on uniforms and grabbed rifles. Timokhin believes the subterfuge was essential to avoiding a confrontation with U.S. or Israeli forces. “We had oil and gas production facilities there and someone had to protect them,” he says. “We were there to protect Syria from falling apart and being destroyed.”

While the troops never engaged in battle, the U.S.S.R. considered the deployment a success, with Timokhin claiming “it prevented World War III.”

Timokhin argues that Russia’s current intervention has also helped bring stability to Syria. And Russia now has two large military bases, complete with extra territoriality on Syrian soil. That means Russian personnel accused of crimes can’t be prosecuted in Syrian courts. But, Timokhin assures, “In places like Syria, there are not so many crimes.”

The U.S. government makes a similar argument in South Korea, Japan, and other countries where it demands extra territoriality for U.S. bases. This has led to major clashes on Okinawa because the U.S. base commander can decide whether to prosecute crimes by U.S. personnel.

The issue was also a flashpoint in the anti-Shah movement in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution. A previously little-known cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, rose to prominence for opposing the Shah’s capitulation to the U.S. military. In 1964, he complained, “If an American sergeant kills the Shah of Iran, we can’t take him to court. But if the Shah of Iran does the slightest thing to an American, they will take him out.”

The previous night’s rain squall has stopped and the sun is shining when I arrive at Vladimir Pozner’s upscale apartment building in Moscow. But the elevator isn’t working and I trudge up the stairs. Pozner, now eighty-five, has had a long and successful career in journalism. He  was frequently featured on American TV in the 1980s and 1990s, often appearing along with U.S. talk show host Phil Donahue. Today, he is the host of a Russian national television interview program.

Pozner gives me his take on Russian involvement in Syria. He says Putin and his advisers “feel that having a force in that part of the world and having influence is important for Russia. That’s very naive and very idealistic because that’s something all countries have tried to do. The Brits tried to do it in their time.”

He opposes U.S. or Russian military intervention in Syria. “Russia shouldn’t be there,” he says. “Neither should anyone else be there. Let the Syrians resolve it. Let the U.N. get involved.”

But Pozner doesn’t make such direct admonitions on his weekly TV show. Certain topics, including direct criticism of Putin, are off limits in most Russian media. “Putin is an autocrat,” Pozner tells me. “The elections aren’t rigged. [But] opposition has not really been allowed to flourish. So there’s very little choice in that sense.”

Putin and Trump share some of the same characteristics, at least in terms of how they see themselves. Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin, a leader he considered weak; he’s been in power in a period of relative economic prosperity; and he’s “made Russia great again” by asserting its military might around the world.

“For most Russians, Putin is a kind of a national hero, someone who has stood up for Russia in very bad times,” Pozner explains. “He made the world take Russia into account.”

As I take an Uber to my next interview, Moscow traffic is even heavier than usual. (Yes, Russia has Uber, along with several other homegrown ride-hailing companies.) I arrive barely on time to meet with Putin ally Alexey Pushkov, a foreign policy expert and member of the upper house of Russia’s national legislature, where he heads a commission on information and media. A former journalist who speaks fluent English, he’s dressed in a two-button gray suit and pale pink tie.

Pushkov takes aim at decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In the 1990s, Russia was going through the wrenching transition to capitalism. “We were weak,” he tells me. Russia, in effect, told the Americans, “You thought we were against you in the Middle East. Now we leave it to you. Just do what you want. Make this peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We’re out.”

And what happened? A sardonic smile appears on his face. The United States invaded Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq—twice. The region became chaotic. “We came to certain conclusions,” he says. “The Americans had it their way, and they spoiled everything.”

So when Russia’s old ally Syria faced a danger of collapsing, Pushkov argues, Russia sent troops. But unlike the United States in Iraq in 2014, Russia had allies able to effectively fight on the ground. The Syrian army, Hezbollah, and Iranian-trained militias from Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be viable ground troops. They are “on the ground and we are in the skies,” notes Pushkov. “It works.”

Pushkov says Russia will limit its military presence in the region but, after years of humiliation by the United States, wants the respect and benefits that come with being a world power. “The United States should not try to play the first violin in the Middle East because they’ve done it for twenty years, and it led to a disaster.”

I ask if Russia should be playing first violin? “No,” he replies. “I think Russia will agree to be part of the orchestra, an important part of the orchestra.”

For much of the U.S. political establishment, that’s too much. If the United States pulls back in the Middle East, they argue, Russia will fill the ensuing vacuum. But every Russian official and analyst I met scoffed at that assertion. To mix metaphors, the vacuum theory is full of hot air.

Russia is a lesser imperialist power with its own economic and political problems. The country faces huge disparities of wealth. Some 30 percent of Russians live in or “close to” poverty. One-third of Russians can’t buy a spare pair of shoes for winter, according to Russia’s state statistics agency. And 21 percent said they could not afford fresh fruit.

The war in Syria is politically unpopular. A recent poll found that 55 percent of the Russian public favors the withdrawal of troops, up from 49 percent in August 2017. Over time, the war’s tremendous cost in lives and treasure will continue to undermine support for the Russian military presence.

Most importantly, the people of the Middle East aren’t interested in trading one hegemonic power for another. “A vacuum means empty,” says Pozner, “There are a whole lot of people there. There’s a country there.”

Back at Hassan and Angelica’s apartment, I ask for details about their relationship. What did she think of him the first time they met?

“I noticed him right away,” Angelica tells me, with a coy smile. “He was so tall and handsome. He was easy going. We were friends for six months. And then we realized we were made for each other.”

So it wasn’t like in novels or movies, where the couple fall in love at first sight? I ask. “Nyet,” Angelica says. So real love develops over time? “Da,” she says, nodding her head. “And that kind of love is stronger.”

And so it is with relationships between countries. It takes time to understand one another and build real alliances. Mutual respect must be at the core. When one partner dominates and exploits the other, the alliance can’t last. So far, neither the United States nor Russia has learned that lesson. ###



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