Syria’s Russian Embrace

As you very well may know, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is deeply entangled with the foreign nations it has requested military assistance from during its now 7-year-long civil war. Those nations, Iran and Russia, have significantly built up their military presence in Syria at the behest of the Assad regime and seem to have no intention of packing up and heading home once the conflict is over (however it concludes). There has been some tension between Syrian and Iranian forces as the Iranians have used their Syrian outposts to launch surveillance missions and outright attacks on Israel, Iran’s mortal enemy and neighbor to Syria in the southwest. These actions have resulted in increasing involvement by the Israelis in the Syrian conflict, mainly focusing on pushing back the gains Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have made in the region, something the Syrian government is not too fond of.

But delving into the internecine tensions between the two Middle Eastern nations is not the purpose of this post; I’m writing today because of a new development that truly ensconces Syria in the realm of subservient Russian client states. Syria officially recognized the breakaway regions of Georgia (the country in the Caucasus) known as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These areas are fundamentally part of the nation of Georgia and are not recognized as independent states by the overwhelmingly vast majority of UN member countries. The only nations which recognize these regions as independent bodies are ostensible Russian client states (or Russia itself), including Venezuela, Nicaragua, and now Syria. (As an aside, the tiny Micronesian island country of Nauru also recognizes the Georgian regions, but they did this is exchange for $50M in Russian aid, and have a history of exchanging diplomatic recognition for cash.)

Why is this important? Well, it is a significant step towards Syria establishing itself as a full Russian client state, which would be concerning for Western observers even if the Russian government was not already assisting with Assad’s criminal behavior against his own citizens. An increase in formal Russian presence in the Middle East is a fundamentally destabilizing thing for the region and Russia has been increasingly active in abetting the destruction and death Assad has been sowing for years. Another interesting issue raised by this recognition is that it brings back up the circumstances of the breakaway of these provinces from Georgia.

Georgia Regions
Map of Georgia, with breakaway regions highlighted.        Image Credit: Wikipedia

If one can remember all the way back to 2008 (I know, when days feel like weeks this is hard to do), you’d find that the Russian invasion of Georgia as it was considering closer ties with NATO and the West was a clear precursor to the internationally condemned Russian takeover of Crimea and their support for ‘insurgents’ in Eastern Ukraine. The circumstances were very similar: a former Soviet client state pushing for better integration with Europe, NATO, and the West generally. The circumstances were slightly different, in that the regular Russian army was used to support separatist fighters in Georgia, while in Ukraine the Russian involvement was purely covert (though no less important). Both wars were started with heavy doses of Russian involvement and were widely disowned by international bodies. Yet today, we have new recognition of these territories by an apparent Russian client in Syria, which suggests that Russian aid is at least in part tied to this sort of acceptance of Russian aggression and illegal activity elsewhere.

We in the West (and everyone else) should be horrified by the Russian aggression so clearly on display in both Georgia and Ukraine, but should also be concerned about how Russian relationships with other states are somewhat predicated on toleration of malign Russian actions elsewhere. If this trend continues, we should be even more wary of increased Russian engagement in areas like the Middle East, where they can exert the diminished power they still have over even less powerful clients. We also need to push back against these sorts of moves, as it needs to be continually restated that the sort of actions Russia has taken in Georgia and Ukraine are unacceptable. If we do not do this, we risk seeing more of this sort of action taken, and not exclusively by Russia; China is currently ravenously eyeing disputed territories with bordering nations including India. There is a long-standing international norm against the use of force to take over the areas belonging to other states, but this foundational concept is being chipped away at by repressive, authoritarian regimes with imperialist aims all across the globe. That isn’t okay.

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