This is the forth entry into a series diving into the historical contexts behind Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s interest into Syria and the Middle East. While also reporting on the current conflict in Syria. The first, second, and third entries set the stage for the current relationship between Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is the full transcript of an interview with Elvin Aghayev of the Independent International Political Research Center (IIPRC), who lent his expertise on several of the previous articles in the series. With the ongoing scandal surrounding President Donald Trump and the Putin administration in Russia, this conversation brings insight to why Syria is playing a huge role on the international stage.
In your opinion is the Russia and Syria relationship symbiotic or do you feel Russia is using Assad for influence in the Middle East?
I think that the relations between these two states most likely symbiotic. As we know, Russia-Syria relations date back to the remote past, entrenched within almost a thousand years of tradition. The Russians faced Arabs from Syria in the 9th-10th centuries and since the 11th century, contacts between Orthodox Clergy of Russia and Syria have taken place. In the 16th-18th centuries, Russia-Syria relations were mainly established through merchants, pilgrims, and scare captives sold to Syria into slavery, which were able to return to Russia. The Russia-Syria relations experienced the period of rise in the 18th-19th centuries, when Russia came into immediate touch with the Ottoman Empire and Muslims from the Caucasus. The Russians started showing interest in Syrian culture, learning Arabi. Development of education in Russian in Syria of the late 19th century at least amongst Orthodox Arabs nevertheless was leading to a certain consolidation of a position of the Russian language, which by the middle of the 19th century had been mastered by many people, not only by those being in sympathy with Russia, i. e. Orthodox Christians or representative of Christian clergy. That phenomenon was determined by communication with the Russian pilgrims, diplomatic officials, travelers (many of them arrived in Syria with a scientific purpose), merchants, and monks.
Peak relations between the two states are seen during the Soviet Union especially after the Second World War. The official visits of the Syrian party and government delegations headed by Hafez al-Assad to the USSR in February of 1971 and in June of 1972 resulted in joint statements, with the Syrian party expressed ‘sincere gratitude to the Soviet Union for disinterested aid rendered to the Syrian Arab Republic in the development of its economy, strengthening the country’s defensive capacity, and training the national staff. Military cooperation was secured in a relevant agreement signed in Damascus during the visit to Syria of the minister defense of the USSR, Marshal Grechko in May of 1972. During the visit of the Prime Minister of the USSR, Alexey Kosygin to Damascus, and Hafez al-Assad to Moscow, ‘steady development and deepening of the relationships between the USSR and Syria in political, military, economic, cultural, scientific, and technical areas’ was mentioned. It could have been mentioned only that in 1990, the USA asserted that the USSR sold weapons to Syria in the period from 1982 to 1986 for 9.6 billion dollars, and sent about 4,000 military experts and instructors. Later, Russia announced the figure of 10.5 billion dollars paid by Syria for the arms bought from the USSR for the period from 1982 through 1989.
In total, from 1956 through 1991, the Soviet Union supplied to Syria the weapons for 26 billion dollars, including combat air crafts such as fighter-bombers Su-22, fighters MiG-29 (1987-1988), and front bombers Cu-24MK (1988-1989). Around 14 thousand Soviet military men visited the country in a capacity of military advisors and experts. The Soviet military higher education institutions trained over 9.5 thousand Syrians.
All these facts show that how important these relations for the two states. Indeed Syria has been an important anchor point for Russia during the process of expanding its influence zone throughout the historical development process. For that reason, Russia has continuously extended military, economic and social aid to Syria. Syria has in turn become a trustworthy ally for Moscow from the point of view of Middle Eastern policies. The importance of the relations between the two countries is predominated by political and strategic concerns. Russia considered Syria as an opening point to Mediterranean and Syria became the Arabic country that extended the biggest support to Russia.
What does Putin have to gain from his loyalty to Assad? Would Russia accept Assad as an exile if he flees Syria?
As we know that Russia and Syria are bound by strong historical and modern relations, this gives us signs that Russia will not leave Assad without support. Since even during the hot Syrian Civilian war, Russia did not leave Assad and Syria alone.
And about the benefit of the Russian side from this cooperation, we can say the following: Russia after the fall of the USSR for the first time actively and successfully acted supporting Syria on the international crisis. This changed the course of events in the Middle East and a new strong player appeared in the region, which influenced the course of the crisis. Playing one of the major roles Russia has returned itself confidence and image of the powerful regional leader the state. There are also many other incomes/benefits of Russia from Syria. We clearly see that these two countries take benefit from each other and this cooperation will continue in the future.
What will the economic ties between the countries look like after the Syrian Civil War?
On the current situation, two countries are interested in developing economic cooperation in various areas, including energy, trade, finance and the automotive industry. Russia and Syria have already signed a number of agreements on restoring infrastructure in Syria for a total of 850 million euros. Priority areas of cooperation are mainly in the energy sector, and there is an offer to Russian companies to participate in the exploration and development of oil and gas fields onshore and offshore Syria. Ministry of Industry of both countries is also interested in industrial cooperation based on a large-unit assembly of cars.
There is also a perspective on cooperation in the financial sector, in particular, on the transfer of payments between countries into national currencies. There is even a desire to open a joint Russian-Syrian bank with a 50% stake in each of the parties. According to the opinion of economic experts, if hypothetically assume that the period of post-conflict reconstruction of Syria will begin in 2018 and economic growth will be maintained at the level of 4½ per cent per year, it will take about 20 years for the country to reach the pre-war (2010) GDP level.
Do you feel Turkey should extend their role in the Syrian Conflict?
Although Turkish foreign policy previously only waited for support from the West relating(to the) Syrian issue but now, compared with last years, they more actively cooperating with regional states on the Syrian problem. The participation and support of Turkey in the negotiations that took place in Astana, showed the positive desire of Turkey in the Syrian conflict. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin praised and thanked the Turkish authorities for active participation in recent Syrian negotiations.
We also know that the current administration of Turkey does not look positively on cooperation with Assad. But Turkey can and should play a more active role in the Syrian conflict. Because the integrity of Syria is very important for its neighboring countries. If Syria is divided into parts, it will be primarily a potential threat to Turkey. Turkey is one of the key players in this region, and if they recognize Syrian administration as they did before, then their image and influence will increase in the Syrian conflict.
From your research, what do you believe needs to occur for peace within the Middle East?
For peace in the Middle East and to defeat the common enemy of terrorism, it is necessary for there to be cooperation between regional leaders in this area. Otherwise, the potential wars between the leaders of the region and the risk of terrorism will always exist. The consequences can be very heavy, from thousands dead to millions of refugees and unknown international crises. Meanwhile, the U.S. did not work with the government of Syria, Moscow behaves flexibly, depending on a specific situation and conditions, and primarily in accordance either with its own national needs in the region or with global purposes.
This problem can be solved by active actions of the international community directed toward providing targeted financial and economic help to the countries of the Middle East, as well as on the implementation of complex reformation of political systems of the troubled countries of the region on the principles of democracy and humanism. The determination in a struggle with terrorism and regional cooperation of the states that are in this region have an important role, too. Otherwise, taking into account the characteristics of the modern world’s foreign policy situation, the current development of events can become a threat to all regional actors.
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