5 мая 2023 года

"For Damascus, the Priority is the Normalization of Relations with the Arab states" Mr. Kuznetsov, Deputy Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies on the Situation Inside Syria and its Relations with Neighbors

Vasily Kuznetsov



- Talks were held in Moscow among the Defense Ministries’ Heads of Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iran at the end of April. An announcement was released after the talks. It said the following: “Special attention at the negotiations was devoted to countermeasures to any manifestations of terrorist threats, the fight against all the extremist groups on the Syrian territory.” What is now happening concerning the threat?

The situation is much better, the threat is not so violent anymore. But that doesn't mean that the problem has been resolved completely. Terrorist attacks in different regions of Syria are still happening from time to time. Different extremist gangs, which vary in numbers, are continuing to operate in the desert area. It is clear that the economic situation in the country affects the security level, and the possibility of terrorist attacks remains.

But, if we go back to the ministerial meeting that you have mentioned, then it is necessary to clarify that Damascus and Ankara understand terrorism differently. They have different lists of terrorists and terrorist organizations. And this is one of the problems hindering the conflict settlement. In the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 - it is always remembered when it comes to conflict settlement - there is a fourth basket, dedicated specifically to the fight against terrorism. But it has never been possible to agree on what belongs to this category. From Damascus’ point of view, there was no civil war at all, but a big counter-terrorism operation.

- This conflict has been called many names, also a religious war ... it is just absolutely wrong. This definition misrepresents the essence of what has been happening in Syria. The religious factor played its role, of course, but there are other reasons and they are not less significant - ethnic, political, and so on.

- So it was a civil war, though. Has it ended or has it just gone into a low-intensity stage?

"Civil war" is not a strict term, it is rather an expression used in literature and in opinion journalism. Mr. Lavrov once said that there was no such legal concept as “civil war”, but there was “an internal armed conflict”. In the case of Syria, a clarification may be made by adding to this definition the word "internationalized". There are no military operations now, but the conflict itself has not been resolved. Syrian society remains split. Huge communities of refugees remain outside the country. Parts of Syria are being under the control of different forces hostile to each other.

- How much percent of the country's territory is being controlled by the government now?

About two-thirds.

- Speaking again about Turkey, in general, how are relations between Damascus and Ankara developing? On a formal level, nothing has changed. In informal - there is some progress. We see that both the Turkish and the Syrian sides are giving signs that they would like to somehow bring the dialogue out of the dead end. But there are several factors that should be considered here. First one, obviously - the elections in Turkey. Now it is being said a lot that if Erdogan loses and Kilichdaroglu comes to power, then all the contradictions with Syria will be instantly removed. I think it is a somewhat naive view of the issue. Yes, of course, the change of leadership in Turkey will make it possible to look for some new solutions. But, on the other hand, we do not know for sure what position Kilichdaroglu and his team will take on foreign policy issues. And the fact that he is an Alewi, and Alawites are in power in Syria, it is unlikely that this fact will play a decisive role in the reconciliation of the two countries. In addition, it is believed that Kilichdaroglu will be a more pro-Western leader. But the most important factor is that there are objective problems in bilateral relations. For example, the problem of Syrian refugees in Turkey. If they return to their homeland, then the issue of security guarantees arises. Moreover, this problem is twofold - on the one hand, we are talking about the safety of the Syrians who have returned home, but on the other hand, they had fled to Turkey not just like that. They are in opposition, which means that official Damascus needs to do something, so that these people do not become a source of destabilization in the country. The next problem is: where will these people return, where will they live and how will the logistics of their return be arranged, how will it all be all technically arranged? And so on. This is all a very large set of complex issues. The second set of issues concerns the Syrian territories, which are now directly or indirectly being controlled by Turkey. It is not just about the lands, but also about the people who are there, and about the political forces represented there. And of course, the Kurdish problem. All these issues may be solved, but it is very difficult to do so. It is necessary that both Damascus and Ankara would show flexibility, but they have not demonstrated it yet.

- Is Turkey ready to withdraw its troops from Syrian territory? What must occur for this to happen?

This is a key problem in relations between the two countries. It is fundamentally important for Turkey to secure its southern borders, to make sure that there is no threat from the Kurdish forces recognized as terrorists by Ankara. To what extent can the Syrians guarantee this? It is hard to tell. But in principle it is possible.

- And what are the relations between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds? When we say “Syrian Kurds”, it seems that there is a territory controlled by Damascus where the Arabs and the other nationalities live, but not the Kurds, but there are uncontrolled territories where the Kurds live. In fact, it's not like that at all. Even in the capital a significant part of the inhabitants are Kurds. Therefore, speaking about relations between Damascus and the Kurds, one must clearly understand: this is not about interethnic, but about political relations. This is the first problem. Second, there is an American presence in the Kurdish-controlled northeast of Syria. A reasonable question arises: to what extent are the Kurds independent, may they even make any decisions themselves? On the other hand, it is clear that the Kurds consider the American presence as the 

security guarantee. But the main problem is the Kurdish desire to achieve some autonomy, ideally to create something similar to Iraqi Kurdistan. For Damascus, these developments are categorically unacceptable. Even talks about the Kurdish cultural autonomy, for example, the recognition of their language as official, does not cause understanding among the Syrian authorities. There is another important aspect: budget forming. How should this happen? First, it is possible to collect all tax revenues in the center, and from there it may be distributed among the regions. It is also possible to send part of the taxes to the center, and to leave part in the places. Obviously, the second option is closer to the Kurds. And, finally, there is still the question of the Kurdish security forces. What to do with them? Integrate into the Syrian army? Who will provide security in the Kurdish-controlled regions? Again, it could be done, as in Iraqi Kurdistan, where there is a peshmerga. But Damascus will never agree to this, since this will mean that it does not fully control part of the Syrian territory.

- It seems that relations between Damascus and the Arab monarchies have begun to improve recently...

On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, it is too early to say that all disagreements are in the past. In general, for Damascus, the normalization of relations with the Arab states is a foreign policy priority. First, it would help Syria to solve economic problems. This requires business from the Gulf countries to come to Syria and return Syrian companies that fled the war to Arab countries. Secondly, the very name of the state sounds like the Syrian Arab Republic, and its official ideology is based on Arab nationalism. The situation when you are an Arab nationalist, and your relations with the Arab countries are broken is a strange situation. Thirdly, for Damascus, the restoration of ties with the Arab countries also means an expansion of the opportunity window. With their help they may balance Iran's influence and thereby strengthen Syria’s own sovereignty.

- In Iran, presumably, the government understands this issue. They are not trying to obstruct? We don't see it. Maybe some kind of undercover fuss is going on, but from the outside it seems that Tehran does not oppose the rapprochement between Syria and the Arab countries. Moreover, now Iran itself is establishing relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies. In addition, I think that the restoration of normal relations between Syria and the Arab states is beneficial for Iran. For Iran the most important issue is stability in Syria, and it directly depends on the state of the economy. Iran cannot take on this burden now, so let the Arab brothers help the Syrians.

- On the issue of the economy: I recently came across several articles about the production of the drug captagon in Syria. Say, it is produced there on an industrial scale and brings in almost as much money as the entire legal business of the country. Is this true or is it journalistic exaggeration?

- Before the war in Syria, the country had a developed pharmaceutical industry that produced high quality medicines. Part of this production capacity belongs to evil men now, it is now being used to manufacture drugs. Please turn on your imagination. Syria lives under the most severe sanctions. The government does not control the territories where the main resources are located. The inflation rate is huge: on the eve of the war the dollar’s price was 50 Syrian lyres, in 2021 its price was 3200 Syrian lyres, in early December 2022 - 5200 Syrian lyres, now it is more than 7000 Syrian lyres. Electricity in Damascus is provided for four hours a day - and this situation is happening in the capital! People freeze to death in winter. Industry shrank by 90% compared to pre-war levels. Under these conditions inevitably the shadow economy flourishes. So drug production is just a part of a complex economic problem.

- How much money is needed to restore Syria? According to various estimates, from 250 billion dollars to a trillion. The real figure, I think, is 300-500 billion dollars.

- Well, the final question. Our, Russian, involvement in Syrian affairs has decreased due to the fact that the Ukrainian direction is now a priority?

I don't think so. Basically nothing has changed. Russia still has two bases in Syria; we have diplomats focused on the Syrian track, and so on. But on the other hand, it is obvious that the political leadership of Russia today is focused on something else. Besides, there is another problem. Russia came to Syria at the request of its official government to help in the fight against terrorists. This goal has been achieved. And then what? That is where Russian responsibility ends, and what happens next Syrians will have to manage themselves?

Or, since you have said A, should you say B? This is exactly what the Syrians expect from us, they complain that Russia is not sufficiently involved in the economic recovery of the country. And this is a fair reproach. Syria has traditionally developed small and medium-sized businesses, these enterprises and these people would like to work with Russia. They could supply us,

for example, with high-quality textiles or cheap cosmetics. But for this it is necessary to create some mechanisms to facilitate trade, to establish logistics. Moreover, under sanctions, it should be easier to resolve such issues. Syria is under sanctions, Russia is under sanctions - we may trade, invest, create joint projects without any fear, it won't get any worse.