From Donbas to northeast Syria

Comfortably, from his presidential office, the Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the birth of two republics in one time, as if the establishment of states is nothing more than a monotonous bureaucratic work akin to nominating ambassadors or appointing general managers. Thus, we witnessed the creation of Luhansk and Donetsk states, which will be no further from the experience of Russian recognition of the Republic of Abkhazia that is internationally unrecognized. While Syria, just like Venezuela and Nicaragua, rushed at the time to recognize Abkhazia, it also rushes to recognize the two new-born states. Perhaps this is one of Syria’s missions which is to accept what is Russian-made, even they are weak states.

Since Moscow took control of the Crimea and the fall of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government in Ukraine in 2014, the involvement in the Ukrainian scene has become more serious. The protesters took control of the regional administration building in Luhansk and Donetsk. Far from drowning in the details of the rebellions in the Donbas, home of the two republics, the demands of the pro-Russian insurgency centered on conducting a referendum on federalism, recognition of Russian as a second official language in Ukraine, and the establishment of a union customs system with Russia. The ultimate goal at the time was to transfer more autonomy to these regions, thus curbing in Kiev’s westward move toward NATO.

Separate from the developing demands of the protesters aiming at independence/separation, such questions may be asked: Are the demands of the protesters in their first edition in 2014 reminds those of northeast Syria’s residents, especially Syria’s Kurds, in this time? Can we summon the policy of double-standards conducted by the great powers, especially since Russia, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, considered the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) a “separatist” project, while it is justifying its interference and support for the practical separatist tendency in Ukraine?

While the one who led the paradox to its end was the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Faisal Mekdad, who stated, during his participation in Valdai Discussion Club two days ago, that “the American occupation forces and their affiliated separatist militias continue looting the wheat and oil of the Syrian people,” announcing “the solidarity of the Syrian people with the two republics of Luhansk and Donetsk”. These are paradoxes that make sense with Damascus’ support for Moscow in the latter’s endeavor in supporting the separatist movements from Ukraine, while it believes that a federal body like the AANES is a separatist movement. The matter is that Syrian is selecting the separatist movements according to its whims or according to Russia’s will. 

The official rhetoric of Damascus is swinging between threatening the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of dire consequences and forcing it to dialogue table subject to abandon the US support. In both cases, the Syrian regime follows the Russian vision that may be changed in Syria after what happened and is happening in Ukraine, as a range of possibilities loom over the horizon, as if the US doubles its support to the SDF and the AANES following the policy of besieging the Russian power even though it might cause hysteria for the Turks or for Moscow to push Damascus to accept the AANES in order to block the way in front of the developing American presence. Most likely for Russia is to search for de-escalation in the Syrian path and push towards avoiding the risks of the US sanctions, and thus, easing Damascus’ accent towards the Kurds. Although the need for economic resources are an additional reason for overcoming the intransigence shown by Damascus, the openness to the AANES may contribute to extending the areas of control of Damascus with the primary resources capable of surviving it before the protests in Suwayda expands to other regions. In other words, no matter what the echoes of what is happening in Ukraine were of little impact, some of these echoes may affect the Russian influence in Syria and the Syrian regime. These echoes will change the form of dealing with the Syrian crisis or they will keep it raging.

There are many analyses that explore the horizon of the international situation before and after the Russian escalation in Ukraine, and there is a consensus that the situation will not return to its previous era, whether the Russian escalation stops at this point or escalates. Of course, the Syrian regime seems apprehensive about the severity of the current international polarization, as the “blessing” of Russian presence may turn into a curse if Washington follows a policy of tracking Moscow’s influence abroad. 

It is unlikely that Washington will follow an approach that reveals the meanings of vexation and maliciousness by placing northeastern Syria in exchange for Luhansk and Donetsk, and that this will become that. The comparison between the Ukrainian and Syrian issues may not be equal in terms of the importance of the first issue on the marginality of the other, but what can be foreseen is that the policies of Washington, Moscow and the major countries after Ukraine will not be the same as before, and this means somewhere that Syria will fall under the shadow of the confrontations of those powers. Although the American influence is concentrated in northeastern Syria while Russia controls the rest of Syria, except for the northwest, a rift line can be drawn from the Donbas to northeastern Syria, and in this, the possibilities of confrontation or treatment intensify.       

Shoresh Darwish