Another Reason For Russia’s Interest In Syria

Last month, I pointed out the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Syria’s Christian community as one possible explanation for the resistance Russia has put up against western efforts to put more pressure on the regime of Bashar Assad. Today, The New York Times points out another interesting fact, it turns out there’s a sizable Russian community in Syria:

MOSCOW — On one jasmine-shaded block in the Syrian port city of Latakia, Natalya lives three doors away from Nina, two from Olga, across a narrow alley from Tatyana, and a short walk from Yelena, Faina and Nadezhda. They are all women from the former Soviet Union who married Syrian men. Pan out to the greater expanse of Syria and the number of Russian wives grows to 20,000, the human legacy of a cold war alliance that, starting in the 1960s, mingled its young elites in Soviet dormitories and classrooms.

This unusual diaspora offers some insight into the many-stranded relationship between the two countries, one that makes the Kremlin reluctant to cast off Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Russia has strategic interests in Syria, including arms contracts that amount to $700 million a year, and a tiny port on the Mediterranean Sea that is its last military base outside the former Soviet Union.

But there is also a human factor, set in motion 50 years ago when social ties were forged among young people who met in college. Walk into any government ministry or corporate headquarters in Syria and you will almost certainly find men who spent their 20s in Russia; many brought home wives and raised children in Russian-speaking households.

“They are wives of the elite, who can have some influence, but it’s a soft influence,” said Nina Sergeyeva, who until recently led an organization of Russian expatriates from her home in Latakia. “The elite of Syria, the men, are very oriented toward Russia.”

As the conflict in Syria continues to defy a diplomatic solution, there are an estimated 30,000 Russian citizens living there , most women and children, Russian government officials estimate. This is an issue that Moscow has confronted before in the Middle East, when the collapse of Soviet-allied governments left Russian citizens stranded. But it has not faced anything on these proportions, or in the age of social media, when the plight of ethnic Russians could prove a serious embarrassment to Moscow.

“Based on the recent experience of evacuation from Lebanon and Palestine in recent years, problems always arise — though there we weren’t talking about thousands or tens of thousands of people, but several hundred,” said Yelena Suponina, a Moscow political analyst specializing in the Middle East. The task of evacuating Russians from Syria, she said, “would be 100 times worse.”

(…)

Russian-Syrian families were drawn into a bitter conflict 16 months ago, when Mr. Assad’s government began a harsh crackdown on antigovernment protests. The opposition has since become an armed insurgency. Russia blames outside elements for the bloodshed and stands staunchly behind the government, continuing to supply Syria with arms and blocking international efforts to force Mr. Assad from office.

The Russian Orthodox Church has also defended Mr. Assad’s secular government, arguing that it protects religious minorities and acts as a bulwark against radical Islamism.

In February, after Russia blocked a United Nations Security Council Resolution calling for Mr. Assad to leave, the top representative of the Orthodox Church in Syria complained to Interfax that his parish was melting away as Russian families left Syria, the embassy had closed its school and, he said, “our women are insulted out loud in some districts of Damascus.”

A Russian consular official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said about 9,000 Russians have officially registered with the embassy, though upward of 30,000 citizens are believed to be in Syria. He said there are currently no plans for evacuation, but said that if the need arose, buses would be sent to cities to transport Russian citizens to safety.

Such an operation would be especially daunting, because a vast number of the expatriate wives come from Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, countries that would almost certainly turn to Moscow for assistance with their own citizens, Ms. Suponina said. She said she knows dozens of families who have quietly flown out women and children to Russia in recent weeks. Officials, she said, “are paying more and more attention to this.”

“You can criticize them for some mistakes, but nonetheless in Moscow they understood long ago that this is a very painful question,” she said.

This isn’t to say that the Russians aren’t pursuing strategic interests by backing Assad as they have, but that the things that are motivating may be far more complicated than a simplistic analysis of the situation would indicate. It’s also worth noting that, at least from a humanitarian point of view, the fate of Syria’s Christians, and of the Russo-Syrian families in the country, are legitimate issues of concern in the event of a collapse of the Assad regime.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook