The Impact of the Ukrainian War on Syria: Would the Rules of the Game Change?

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While discussing the possible effects of the war in Ukraine, questions are being raised about whether Syria, another conflict area, will also be affected by this process or what kind of situation will arise if it is affected. Firstly, the situation in Ukraine is likely to obscure the situation in Syria. Although this uncertainty is especially prominent in the economic sense, it also makes itself felt at the point of security. In this framework, one can say that there has been an interaction between the progress of the war in Ukraine and the behavior of the actors in Syria.

First, looking at economic reflections, it is known that even before the end of the Ukrainian War, the vast majority of Syrians lived in poverty, dependent on humanitarian aid, and moreover, a life without food security. Under these circumstances, the war in Ukraine is expected to lead to a reduction in inputs towards agriculture and industrial activities. This would affect Syria’s climate created by the war and would thus further undermine the conditions of the Syrian people.

Syria will be adversely affected by the ongoing conflict, as the environment disrupts shipments through the Black Sea, reduces ships’ mobility, and increases in insurance costs. In addition, the presence of war will increase the prices of agricultural and industrial products and will further expand the humanitarian needs that exist throughout Syria. In the event of such a potential humanitarian crisis, though governments strive to find alternative ways of doing so, extreme poverty and massive unemployment continue to plague, and the region’s destabilization may ultimately become inevitable.

The prolonged war in Ukraine also affects markets. Therefore, high commodity and energy prices, disruptions of supply chains, difficulty in finding reliable alternative sources, and triggering inflationary waves are expected on a global scale. Thus, the long-term duration of the war and its impact on the markets has brought into question the possibility of providing less financial assistance to crisis regions such as Syria.

After the unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2585 in July, the use of the Bab al-Hawa air checkpoint between Turkey and Syria was agreed for 6 months. This indicates that fewer financial assistance is currently out of the question. It is also expected that the level of funding provided to the region in Syria will be affected over time, as problems continue to exist, including loss of supply, rising prices and an increase in the number of people in need. Indeed, even now, the levels of committed funds are not enough to meet current needs, given the breadth of the humanitarian needs in Syria. In this framework, the impact of the war in Ukraine coupled with the growth of the deficit and Syria’s failure to provide a favorable environment for investment indicates that an economic recovery is unlikely.

On the other hand, the most important ally of the Syrian government, Russia, has been subject to economic sanctions, which have further intensified in the future, further strengthening expectations of a negative impact on the Russian economy. A negative view of Russia’s economic capability has raised the issue of declining economic support for Syria. This could further slow down Syria’s economic development, including the reconstruction process. Thus, the war with Ukraine increases the likelihood that both Russia will directly influence its existing capability to Syria and the humanitarian crisis will deepen in Syria.

Secondly, it is unlikely that the war in Ukraine will affect Russia’s military presence in Syria in the short term. To put it more clearly, this is not the case in the near future, where Moscow is expected to reduce its military presence in Syria and/or shift its attention and resources from that region to the Ukrainian front. However, since 23 April Turkey’s closure of airspace to all military and civilian aircraft carrying troops to Syria has slowed Russia’s supply to Syria, but has not stopped supplying altogether. Ultimately, Russia’s air and naval bases in the region remain important in a strategic context, in other words, they form the basis of its military presence in the region.

Russia’s approach to military assets in Syria comes mainly within the framework of the rotation of Syrian troops, militia forces, private military companies, and Russian troops. Taken from this perspective, Russia could instead allow the deployment of groups of Syrian soldiers, paramilitary forces and private military companies in Ukraine, which it describes as “volunteers” rather than withdrawing its military might from the region. While there is no concrete evidence of such deployment yet, it is not surprising that such a possibility would be raised if the war prolonged.

On the other hand, as the war in Ukraine continues over the medium and long term, it is possible to experience what could be called a kind of military rotation between Russian troops in Syria and troops in Ukraine. However, such a rotation is also likely to cause a distraction among Russian troops. It is a fact that such a distraction would create a vacuum in Syria and that there would be a good chance that the country would benefit from it, especially from terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Moreover, any such power vacuum would make possible a revival of ISIS, as the already existing humanitarian crisis in the region could then deepen due to the market influence generated by the Ukraine War, thus triggering instability in the region.

In this context, it appears that the war of the Moscow Administration with Ukraine was of existential importance and that Syria was behind the agenda in comparison to the Ukrainian War. It should not come out of that, however, that Russia is neglecting its policy towards Syria. It is a fact that Russia, in the end, cannot afford to fail on its Syrian policy. Although the Kremlin has weighed in on the war in Ukraine, it will continue to maintain regulations protecting its interests in Syria. In the short term, the situation here concerns Russia’s refrain from activities that could trigger armed conflicts in Syria and/or escalate tensions with other actors in the region, particularly Turkey and the United States. It is also possible that Russia may attempt to normalize relations between regional actors and the Syrian leadership, thereby strengthening the position of Syrian President Assad.

Russia could also change its policy in Syria in perception of a possible threat to the security of its regime. For example, various coercive actions can be taken in areas under its control in Syria, with the aim of forcing both NATO member states to make concessions and/or diverting attention from Ukraine to elsewhere.

On the other hand, it is possible that a Russian-caused gap in Syria will also allow Iran to expand its influence in the region. Not only in the context of a military rotation, but also the fact that Russia is sending most or all of its troops in Syria to Ukraine poses a risk to ensuring the security of its strategic points in the region. Such an environment allows Iran to expand its security and economic activities in Syria. Indeed, it is noteworthy in this sense that since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there has been a significant increase in the activities of Iranian and Iranian-influenced groups in the region. Although Iran is Russia’s closest ally in the region, Russia’s prioritization of Ukraine raises the issue of Iran’s efforts to adapt its presence in Syria to changing circumstances. More specifically, Russia’s dominant presence in Syria is a situation that limits Iran’s activities in the region. In this sense, Moscow’s focus on Ukraine is possible to trigger an Iranian effort to increase its influence, especially in eastern and southern Syria. As a result, Iran which aims to neutralize US presence in the region and to exercise influence at the Israeli border, is thus more likely than ever to have expansive activities in the region.

It is also important to note that Iran’s position in the region may also be closely linked to the situation of nuclear negotiations. As it is known, Iran also weighed in on uranium enrichment, with the withdrawal of the United States and the reinstatement of sanctions against Iran in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCAP), which includes the limitation of Iranian nuclear activities, while Russia and China continued to support Iran’s nuclear activities.

Following the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States, the United States has made a number of statements suggesting a renewal of negotiations with Iran. After the European Union’s (EU) High Representative for Foreign Relations and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, traveled to Iran to discuss the issue, it was agreed that nuclear talks would resume in Doha, but the US State Department said that negotiations would not take place due to demands by the Tehran Administration.

Although the course of the nuclear negotiations remains unclear for the time being, it is likely that possible developments in this regard will affect Iran’s activities in Syria. Accordingly, the return to the nuclear agreement with Iran and the suspension of sanctions against Iran may reduce the activities of the Tehran Administration and groups supported by this administration, especially those aimed at breaking US influence in Syria. In other words, it is possible that the nuclear negotiations will be successful and the restoration of the agreement will have an inhibitory effect on the escalation of tensions in Syria. In turn, the failure of nuclear negotiations with Iran allows maintaining tension, and moreover, Iran’s influence in the region is gradually expanding as Russia weighs the war in Ukraine.

On 27 February, Assad’s security adviser, Ali Memluk, met with senior officials in Tehran and on 23 March Iranian Foreign Minister Emir-Abdollahian’s visit to Syria was notable. Thus, while the interests of global and regional actors such as Russia and Iran remain in Syria, it is possible that their priorities, approaches and capabilities from the Ukraine War will be affected. But the scope of the impact here is also closely related to the duration and development of the war.

It can be said that the interests and capacity of the Washington Administration have not changed for the time being, especially in Syria. In other words, the war in Ukraine does not yet have the effect of changing the priorities of the United States in Syria. A gust of change in the current US policy is likely only if the war in Ukraine is prolonged or spreads with a domino effect. For example, the destabilization of international financing assistance to Syria due to the Ukrainian War, the boycott by Russia of assistance to areas outside the control of the Syrian Government in accordance with UNSC resolution 2285, or the possible revival of ISIS in a vacuum that may occur, will cause a change in the current US approach.

As a result, the intersection of the war in Ukraine with Syria raises the possibility of adversely affecting a number of situations, from development programs to military ones. The fact that the Ukrainian War is limited and does not last long is clearly not going to contribute to the negative progress of the situation in Syria. As it’s known, the satisfying outcome of cost-benefit analysis for any actor to challenge the status quo is an important factor. Actors such as Russia and the United States seek to maintain the status quo in Syria and, furthermore, avoid costly activities. However, the course of the war could be seen as “frozen facades in various areas after a prolonged conflict, with a subsequent surge of violence and low-level fighting”.

While sanctions against Russia are likely to continue, they could further increase. At this stage, it is possible that setbacks in support for Syria provided by Russia will arise, but it will not allow reduction of influence in the region. Russia’s attention to the Ukraine War has put Syria at the back of its agenda, prompting Iran to expand its sphere of influence in the region. Because this would particularly unsettle the United States and Israel, some allied regional countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, could improve relations with the Syrian government in order to balance Iran. Despite these odds, there is one major case that is the fact that the most significant reflection of the Ukrainian War on Syria in the near future will be of a humanitarian crisis.

Doç. Dr. Fatma Anıl ÖZTOP
Doç. Dr. Fatma Anıl Öztop Kocaeli Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü öğretim üyesidir. Doktorasını “Karar Birimlerinin Dış Politika Yapım Sürecinin İşleyişine Etkileri: Türk Dış Politikası Örneği” adlı çalışmasıyla Sakarya Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’ndan, yüksek lisans derecesini Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Tarihi üzerine “Türk-İngiliz İlişkileri (1939-1945)” isimli çalışmasıyla Fırat Üniversitesi’nden, lisans eğitimini ise uluslararası ilişkiler üzerine Sakarya Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden almıştır. Çalışmalarını terörizm, devlet-içi çatışmalar ve dış politika üzerine yoğunlaştıran Dr. Öztop’un Terrorism and Political Violence, Middle Eastern Studies gibi çeşitli dergilerde yayınlanmış makaleleri, kitap bölümleri ve “Terörizm ve Kadın: Fail mi Kurban mı? (2022)”, “Türk Dış Politikası Yapım Sürecinde Karar Birimlerinin Etkileri (2016)” ve “Dış Politika Analizi Üzerine Okumalar (E. Efegil ve R. Kalaycı ile birlikte, 2020)” adlı kitapları mevcuttur. 2011 yılında Fırat Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde Uzman olarak göreve başlayan Öztop, bu görevini 2016 yılına kadar sürdürmüştür. 2016 yılından itibaren Kocaeli Üniversitesi’nde öğretim üyesi olarak çalışmaya devam eden Dr. Öztop, evli ve iki çocuk annesidir.