Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in early 2011, Damascus consciously sought to pursue a relatively balanced foreign policy toward most of its neighbors. Its challenges with Israel notwithstanding, Syria tried to maintain diversified and even-handed relations with Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world regionally and with Russia, the European Union, and the United States on the global level. However, when the Arab Spring uprisings brought political crisis home to Syria, the government’s sharp domestic crackdown gradually changed these conditions, resulting in Syria’s expulsion from the Arab League and the escalation of tensions with Turkey and the Western world. This threw Syrian foreign policy out of its traditional balance, compelling the country to rely overwhelmingly on support from Iran and Russia. The constricted room for maneuver on the regional and international stage has had numerous and varied consequences for Syria foreign policy over the past 11 years. But some of the most illustrative about-turns caused by the swing toward Russia could be observed in Syria’s relations with neighbors in the post-Soviet space: namely, Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
One of the first notable examples of Damascus moving away from its traditional balanced approach toward the Caucasus region was the government’s policy on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Syria is historically important to the Armenian nation because some of the 1915 massacres of Armenians that took place during Ottoman rule occurred in areas such as Deir ez-Zor. Still, between 1946 and 1991, the Syrian government never recognized these tragic events as a “genocide.” This approach did not change after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia. To maintain a balanced approach and preserve its relations with Turkey and Armenia, the Syrian government specifically avoided wading into the difficult waters associated with recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
This steadfast approach changed after 68 years, in 2014, as a result of Turkey’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents. Namely, in January of that year, in an interview with Agence France-Press, Assad explicitly compared a string of terrorist attacks in Syria to the historical massacres of the Armenians in Turkey: “It reminds us of the massacres perpetrated by the Ottomans against the Armenians when they killed a million and a half Armenians and half a million Orthodox Syriacs in Syria and in Turkish territory.” This was the first time any Syrian head of state acknowledged the 1915 mass murders or identified the perpetrator as Ottoman Turkey. That said, Syria initially avoided passing a law to this effect, nor did it officially announce its government’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
This posture shifted more sharply, however, when the tensions and conflict in northern Syria peaked, particularly following the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria, code-named Operation Peace Spring, on Oct. 9-17, 2019. Four months later, the Syrian parliament formally recognized the 1915-1917 Armenian Genocide on Feb. 13, 2020. Syria, thus, became the second Arab-majority state, after Lebanon, to do so, which was perceived positively by Armenia and Armenians. Following this unprecedented passage of the parliamentary resolution, the conflict between Damascus and Ankara in northern Syria intensified further; and on Feb. 27, 2020, during the peak of Turkey’s Operation Dawn of Idlib 2, the Russian and Syrian air forces conducted airstrikes against a Turkish Army convoy in Balyun, Idlib Governorate.
Moreover, unlike during the first Karabakh conflict (1988-1994), the Syrian government openly and officially championed Armenia in the Second Karabakh War (Sept. 27-Nov. 10, 2020). Syrian President Bashar al-Assad explicitly voiced his support for Armenia, accusing Turkey of sending terrorists and Salafi groups into the warzone. In turn, the governments of Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan accused Syria and Armenia of having resettled some of the Syrian Armenian immigrants in the Karabakh region since the start of Syria’s civil war. In general, although Syrian relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan were not severed, its relations with Armenia developed significantly, thus upending the balanced foreign policy Damascus sought for decades to maintain toward these two South Caucasus countries. The role of Turkey vis-à-vis Syria was naturally critical and decisive in this process.
The second important sign of Syria’s changing approach to the South Caucasus was its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two breakaway Georgian regions, which Moscow unilaterally declared independent in 2008. In 2015, Abkhazia’s de facto Foreign Minister Viacheslav Chirikba met in Moscow with the Syrian ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, to discuss “bilateral” relations. Chirikba said afterward that “there was great interest by both parties to [engage in] strengthening and deepening Syrian-Abkhaz relations. Will this lead in the end to Syria’s recognition of Abkhazia [independence]? I think anything’s possible, but this of course is the sovereign decision of the Syrian side.” Three years later, on May 29, 2018, Syria officially recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Syria that same day.
The Syrian government’s stated reason for taking this step is in itself quite noteworthy: “In gratitude for the assistance against terrorist aggression, the Syrian Arabic Republic has decided to establish diplomatic relations with the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” the foreign ministry in Damascus declared. In other words, the Syrian government extended formal recognition to these separatist Georgian regions as a show of gratitude to Russia for the latter’s efforts in confronting the opponents of the Assad regime. Tbilisi has long accused Moscow of enticing allies to recognize the two Russia-backed entities in return for military, economic, and diplomatic aid. But Damascus’ decision to actually do so highlights the almost unmatched level of influence Moscow has over Syria compared to Russia’s other strategic partners. Moscow has for years also implored Belarus, Armenia, China, and North-Korea to open up diplomatic relations with the separatist Georgian territories — so far, without success.
Another issue is Syria’s possible response should Russia attempt to annex these Georgian regions outright (similar to the Crimean peninsula in 2014). Though a referendum on joining the Russian Federation is not currently on the agenda for either breakaway statelet, were Moscow to push such a plan, Syria would be expected to recognize the annexation of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, just as it recognized the annexation of Crimea, in November 2016. This step by Damascus would further deepen the discord between Georgia on the one hand and Syria and Russia on the other, additionally negatively impacting on the prospects for regional cooperation in the South Caucasus in the form of the 3+3 talks (which bring together the three South Caucasus states along with Turkey and Syrian allies Russia and Iran).
The third notable sign of a change to Syria’s traditional and balanced policy toward the former Soviet space has been its approach to Ukraine over the last several years. Syria was the sixth country to officially recognize the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, in November 2016, after Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and North Korea. Notably, a week after the Syrian government’s decision, Evgeny Fedorov, who represents the United Russia party in the State Duma, wrote a letter to the Iranian parliament in November 2016, urging Iran to similarly recognize the annexation of Crimea. However, the Iranian legislature did not respond to the letter, effectively demonstrating respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and opposition to a changing of borders by force. Despite its close relations with Moscow, Tehran also has not recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
The reasons for Iran’s firm stance relate in large part to a history of ethnic and separatist movements inside the country as well as fears of growing pan-Turkist movements in the ethnic-Azerbaijani-inhabited areas of northwestern Iran. Nevertheless, in order to maintain its strategic relations with both Russia and Syria, Iran has avoided openly criticizing the decision to recognize the independence or annexation of the aforementioned Ukrainian and Georgian territories.
In contrast, the increasingly unbalanced approach of Syrian foreign policy toward Russia and Ukraine was again on display at the 11th Middle East Conference of the Valdai discussion club, in Moscow, on Feb. 22, 2022. Namely, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad proclaimed that Damascus supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DPR, LPR) and called it a “historic milestone.” And when Russia launched the large-scale invasion of its neighbor two days later, Syria again expressed clear support for the Kremlin. Syrian President Assad, in a phone conversation with Putin on Feb. 25, praised Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine and referred to the aggression as a “correction of history and restoration of balance which was lost in the world after the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
Therefore, it was not surprising that Syria itself officially recognized the independence and sovereignty of the breakaway LPR and DPR on June 29. Following this decision, the government of Ukraine, like Georgia, cut off diplomatic relations with Syria. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “There is no doubt that the Syrian regime is trying to give pseudo-subjectivity to the Russian occupying administrations in Donetsk and Luhansk at the behest of its Kremlin curators.” Syria reciprocated, and broke off ties with Ukraine a month later.
When it comes to the prospects of the Assad regime returning to a more balanced foreign policy, there is a much greater likelihood for this vis-à-vis the Middle East than the former Soviet space. Notably, after 11 years of civil war and domestic crisis, Syria’s relations with some Arab countries, such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, are finally becoming normalized. And there is even the possibility of Syria being welcomed back into the Arab League.
Syrian relations with Russia and its war-torn post-Soviet neighbors, on the other hand, look fairly locked in. Damascus’ support for Armenia precludes significantly improved dealings with Azerbaijan. But the situation is even less hopeful regarding Georgia and Ukraine. Syria crossed a red line with both of these two countries, and their relations can only return to their previous state if Damascus withdraws its recognition of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Luhansk, and Donetsk.
Finally, when it comes to Syrian relations with Turkey, although the recognition of the Armenian Genocide was important, this factor alone did not create the long-running tensions between the two countries. Indeed, Turkey maintains diplomatic relations with 33 countries that have recognized the Armenian Genocide. The far more significant and less easily solvable complication stems from the Kurdish issues in northern Syria and Ankara’s periodic military operations on Syrian soil. Consequently, Syria’s relations with Turkey, Georgia, and Ukraine will continue to suffer from Damascus’ Russia-oriented and unbalanced approach for the foreseeable future. Recent remarks by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu about the need to reconcile the Syrian regime and armed opposition would seem to suggest some improvement in relations between Ankara and Damascus. And yet, those comments were actually in line with Turkey’s years-long policy of backing a negotiated solution to the intra-Syrian conflict, while periodically maintaining contact with the Assad government.
Undoubtedly, Syria’s self-damaging policy toward the post-Soviet space is primarily dictated by the Assad regime’s perceived need to ensure its survival by securing Russian military and, to a lesser degree, political and economic backing. Moscow has been able to exploit this vulnerability in its main Middle Eastern client state by putting pressure on Syria’s foreign policy. Undoubtedly, the Kremlin’s ultimate desired goal is to turn Syria into another “Belarus” for Russian foreign policy — a country completely loyal and aligned with Moscow’s policies and approaches but that crucially lies outside of Russia’s immediate neighborhood. It should not be forgotten that the Russian military fleet has a naval base on lease in the port city of Tartus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea until 2042, which facilitates its presence in this strategic body of water that would otherwise be under almost unchallenged NATO control. Domination of Syria and the compelled long-term realignment of its foreign policy is, thus, key to Russia’s ability to project power in the wider Black Sea region and beyond.
Dr. Vali Kaleji is an expert in regional studies, Central Asia, and Caucasian studies based in Tehran, Iran. He has published numerous articles on Eurasian issues with the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and the Valdai Club. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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