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Russia, Syria and the ‘Ukrainian Volcano’

Russia, Syria and the ‘Ukrainian Volcano’

Wednesday, 22 June, 2022 - 08:30
A boy rides a bike during a sandstorm in Syria's Idlib on June 2. (AP)

Two new developments in Syria unveiled once again the extent to which the country is affected by the Russian war in Ukraine. This time, the wind is blowing through the doors of UN political and humanitarian institutions.

The connection between the crises in Syria and Ukraine dates back to 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea in retaliation to a change of Ukrainian presidents and its ally, Viktor Yanukovych, fleeing the Ukrainian presidential palace.

At the time, Moscow demanded that Damascus show toughness towards the UN Geneva track. That was before it finally decided to have its military intervene directly in Syria by the end of 2015.

With the start of war in Ukraine, the economic suffering of the Syrians worsened and indications of a military entanglement between the two “arenas” appeared: Russia’s military role in Syria declined due to its preoccupation with Ukraine, leaving space for Iranian attempts to fill the vacuum in Syria, which was met with escalated Israeli strikes against Tehran’s interests there.

Moreover, several Russian-US military tests have taken place in Syrian airspace.

For its part, Turkey tried to take advantage of these developments by launching a new incursion in northern Syria.

Presently, there are two developments: the first is that Moscow has informed Damascus not to participate in the UN-sponsored meetings of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva, and the other is that Russia has informed the Western parties that it will not extend the international resolution on cross-border aid delivery when its term expires on July 10.

Damascus has always been uncomfortable with the UN track since the issuance of the “Geneva Declaration” in 2012 and the convening of the international conference in early 2014.

It opposes transforming the Syrian crises into an international issue and wants to implement a local agenda with local priorities, considerations, and calculations.

Moscow, for various reasons, had pushed Damascus to accept the UN track in Geneva because this gives legitimacy to Russian efforts and presence in Syria. The track also provides Moscow with a platform for its international calculations and trade-offs.

Despite this, Russia has preserved its options and has continued its attempts to “dismantle Western influence at the UN.”

Russia has added two other tracks to the equation: the first in Astana, in cooperation with Iran and Turkey, to discuss military matters, and the other in Sochi, to discuss political matters and hold a conference for Syrian national dialogue.

Moscow sometimes thought of attacking the Geneva track and the international efforts, but it waited and negotiated, and then pressured Damascus to send its delegations to meetings in Europe.

Also, Moscow was sending presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev to meet with the Turkish and Iranian “guarantors,” and US and European interlocutors. Geneva has become a platform for Russia's international outlook on Syria. This path has become an urgent need for all parties to achieve gains or justify shortfalls.

What changed now?

The eruption of the Ukrainian volcano changed everything. Some UN institutions, backed by the West, have punished Russia for its war. Also, the US-Russian back-track that existed in Geneva has come to a stop. Before the last round of the Constitutional Committee's meetings at the end of May, Lavrentiev did not get the same welcome he usually received.

Russia declared that Switzerland is “not a neutral territory,” and demanded that Damascus ask the UN to find a new place to host the committee meetings. Four alternatives were offered: Moscow, Sochi, Damascus or Algiers.

Russia understands that the possibility of Western envoys and the Syrian opposition traveling to Russia or Damascus is not on possible. Also Algiers, which will host the Arab League summit in November, to discuss the return of Damascus' membership in the organization, is not realistic.

The Geneva track for the Constitutional Committee is now faced with two options: either freeze negotiations or succumb to Russia’s conditions.

The Geneva track file has become, more or less, a paper that is added to another development which pertains to the international resolution on cross-border aid delivery.

A year ago, Moscow signaled several times that it would not extend the resolution and pressured donors to knock on the doors of Damascus.

As for Washington, it raised the bar by talking about opening three border crossings, two of them with Turkey and the third with Iraq, and considered extending the resolution a priority for the new administration of President Joe Biden.

Secret negotiations between the envoys of Putin and Biden, which took place in mid-June last year, were able to produce a new draft resolution that included an extension for a single crossing between Turkey and Syria’s Idlib.

The drafted resolution, which was worded differently, also included US setbacks and support for funding early recovery and aid delivery across the lines of contact.

The situation has changed a lot. Contact between the two superpowers has stopped, there is a military escalation in Ukraine, and signs are emerging of a military clash between the US and Russian armies in Syria.

With the end of the resolution's mandate approaching, there is a possibility that Russia will initiate a request for a draft resolution regarding cross-border humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine in return for passing the resolution for northern Syria.

Once again, the link between the two files is clear.

Another possibility is that the resolution remains without extension and alternative plans get reviewed. Indeed, the envoy of Western countries discussed alternative plans.

Can Turkish organizations be relied upon as an alternative? Western countries do not want to give it this advantage.

Is it possible to establish a Western-funded trust that uses existing institutions and lines? This prospect is being seriously considered.

Faced with the humanitarian options and the two Syrian developments, the UN sharpened its rhetoric and used new vocabulary.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres intervened by presenting a detailed statement on the importance of preserving the role of the UN, extending the international resolution to provide relief to more than four million people, and to provide aid to 14 million people in a country where 90% of its people live below the poverty line.

“It is a moral imperative to address the suffering and vulnerability of 4.1 million people in the area who need aid and protection,” he said.

Aside from what is moral and humane, what about the strategic and geopolitical aspect? Most likely, the two new tests will show that Syria has become a hostage to an international-regional game and that the Syrians may pay the price of the “Ukrainian volcano.”

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