Pro-regime Syrians see Russia containing Iran
BEIRUT - Russia’s military build-up in Syria was welcomed by war-weary Syrian government supporters, many of them with ties to Moscow dating back to the Soviet Union, while there is growing hostility against Iran’s domineering and divisive sectarian role in the war.
Syrians opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad however called the deployment of Russian planes, ships and troops in the coastal province of Latakia an aggression against Syrian sovereignty.
“We welcome the Russian involvement, which came very late. It should have been there since the early months of the crisis,” said Ahmad, a civil engineer from Latakia, Syria’s principal port city and power base of Assad.
“Moscow should have engaged ground forces from the first year of the conflict. There are fighters from 80 different nationalities in Syria. Let the Russians be the 81st,” he said.
Ahmad speaks fluent Russian, having studied at Moscow University in the 1980s. As many as 50,000 Syrians sought higher education in Russia, reflecting Moscow’s historic backing of Syria dating back to the Cold War. An estimated 15,000 Syrians are married to Russians.
Ahmad said he is hopeful the Russian military move would speed up a settlement of the conflict, which started as anti-regime demonstrations in March 2011 but has degenerated into fully fledged civil war, claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people and forced the displacement of 12 million others.
While Russia and Iran are staunch supporters of Assad’s regime, Moscow’s support has been mainly political whereas Tehran has provided economic assistance and manpower, through its Shia proxies, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, to the battlefield, and giving the conflict a sectarian turn.
Tehran’s heavy-handed role in Syria is being increasingly rejected by Syrians of all sectarian denominations, including Assad’s Alawite community and is giving rise to a “middle” political movement, dubbed the “Third Trend”, which is neither with the regime nor with the opposition but is deeply wary of Iran’s expanding role and control over decision-making in the country.
“The Third Trend is growing day by day,” said an Alawite from Latakia who asked to be identified as Shadi. “We do not want to lose our local and Arab identity for the sake of Iran whose real objective is to extend its hegemony over the region from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon in order to revive the Persian empire at the expense of Arab nationalism.”
“The Russians, unlike Iranians, have clear objectives. They want to have political and economic leverage in any solution but have no ambitions inside Syria,” Shadi said.
Moscow-based Syrian political analyst Taha Abdel Wahed contended the Russian move was dictated by two main reasons: “To deter any possible engagement of ground troops by the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State without coordination with Moscow and to secure a role in any matter related to the Syrian issue.”
“The ultimate goal is to pass a message to the West that Russia should be considered a main partner in the making of international policies,” he said.
He played down the possibility that Russian troops might join the fighting on the side of the Syrian Army. “Such a venture would have dangerous fallout for which Russian forces will pay the price,” Abdel Wahed said. “Moscow will not take the risk and it has no economic capacity to sustain such a military operation, which could prove to be a more terrible quagmire than the Soviets’ involvement in Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, Russian weapons recently delivered to Damascus have had a positive effect on Syrian Army morale. “The army, which had largely depleted its arsenal in the past four years, was badly in need of special weapons suitable for conducting guerrilla warfare,” noted military expert and journalist Hassan Hassan.
But the Syrian opposition appeared to be undeterred by the Russian build-up, vowing to pursue its main objective of toppling Assad’s regime, regardless of the number of its allies.
“There is no doubt that matters got complicated but one red line from which we will not deviate is to keep up the struggle until the regime is gone,” said Hussam Abu Baker from Ahrar Al Sham group. “Any force that enters the country, for no matter what reason, will be treated as an occupation force and we will fight them until they are kicked out.”
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces said the Russian build-up was a blunt violation of Syria’s sovereignty and a prelude to the country’s partitioning. “Such manoeuvres will only reinforce the Syrian people’s determination to achieve victory and build a democratic and civil state,” a coalition statement said.
In parallel to the developments on the ground, international diplomacy has gained new momentum through UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, who is on a fresh attempt to find a way out of the crisis.
The Russian move is largely seen as a way to contain Iran’s control of decision-making in Syria. Moreover, Syria is Moscow’s last foothold in the Arab region and only access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, after it had lost its footings in Iraq and Libya, and will not relinquish it easily.