I first personally experienced the fast rising tide of “Syria loves Putin” sentiment in this country at Lebanon’s Masnaa border crossing the other day. While waiting for my visa to be stamped in my passport I chatted about recent developments in Syria over tea in the commander’s office with three Syrian immigration officials, who over the past few years have become valued friends.
Colonel “X” jokingly explained that he had bad news for me since I am an American. As I was thinking to myself, “Now what for Christ’s sake!”, he reported that the cost of an American visa for Syria — if Americans can even get one these days — may be going up in price from the current outrageous $160 each entry to and hard to imagine $200 per entry! My friends taunted me and howled with laughter as I complained and demanded to know, “why do you people target us Americans and how about it, what do others pay to enter Syria?”
Since their unit collects the visa fees and knows who is charged how much, the gentlemen quickly listed some. A few examples: Russians are charged $14 for a visa, Chinese $ 15, Brits $ 25, French $23, Saudi Arabians $ 75 Japanese $ 24 and for some reason Turks don’t pay anything at all. The visa fee may change regarding Turkey I was told, but so far their citizens benefit from a penumbra of the unique humanitarian policy of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) (the only Arab country with this policy) which since the Baathist revolution and until the current conflict did not even require a visa for any Arabs coming here. How times have quickly changed in this region.
“But the Turkish government is your enemy!” I insisted. “Why do they come in free and they aren’t even Arabs?” I wailed to more guffaws. And then there is the case of the Iranians, what do they have to pay to enter Syria” I demanded to know. The reply from the commanders, with a straight face, was: “For sure, Iranians would pay nothing if they came here but we never see them? Do you Sayed Lamb?” More hysterical laughter. One immigration employee commented “Now we do occasionally see some friends of the Islamic Republic enter Syria from Lebanon in racing convoys of large black SUV’s with blackened windows but they don’t stop in for passport stamps. They simply honk and wave at our checkpoint soldiers as they speed along their way.”
I know that life is not always fair.
The conversation returned to Russia’s new ‘vitality’ in Syria. The commander explained: “All Syrians love Putin. He is known to us as ‘Abu Ali Putin’” And as my friends effusively recited praise for Valdmir Putin, I couldn’t get a word in sideways, and was reminded of Elizabeth Barrett Bowning’s poem, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Without serious question, Syria and this region are witnessing the most significant shift in great-power relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago. For many reasons Russia has deployed its forces far from home to quell a revolution, entrench its military, showcase its new weapons and support a friendly regime. The evidence here in Damascus is that they are deadly serious and mean to challenge US influence in this region and, along with their Iranian “partners”, have no plans to leave anytime soon.
Seeking to return as a major power in the Middle East, Russia’s Putin is trying to justify his intervention in Syria as a practical move by a reliable partner to end the crisis while his aids make it plain that the US can’t be relied upon. As John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm in Rothenburg, Germany explained this week, “Putin is a “Gaullist,” meaning that that like Charles de Gaulle who maintained France a power punching above its weight after World War II partly offering France as an alternative to American arrogance.
Russia may face a contest with Iran which has roughly the same plans according to some of the journalists I have met with following the largest press conference I’ve ever attended in Syria. The packed media event was to hear an analysis by the Chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who was accompanied by a large delegation of Iranian lawmakers. Mr. Boroujerdin explained that Iran would consider sending fighters to Syria if Damascus requests them: “If Syria makes a request for Iranian forces, we will study the request and make a decision. What’s important is that Iran is serious about the fight against terrorism,” he added. “We have supplied aid and weapons and sent advisers to Syria and Iraq.”
Some journalists in Damascus report that over the past two weeks more the 1,500 Iranian troops have arrived with more on the way. When this observer asked one Syrian journalist how he assessed the timing of the visit of such a large high ranking Iranian delegation he smiled and replied: “Oh they have come to tell the Syrians and others during this Putin lovefest “Hey, what about us? Don’t forget we have been helping Syria’s war against the terrorists since 2012. These guy are newcomers.”
Almost as if their feelings are hurt, Iran will partner closely with Russia and each country is focused on expelling “Terrorists” from certain areas of Northwestern Syria while entrenching themselves and fortifying preferred strategic real-estate. Russia closer to Tartous and Latakia and Iran and its Shia allies along the Lebanon-Syria border in order to maintain access and arms supply routes for Hezbollah. Meanwhile, they will join with the Russians to repel jihadist fighters from Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, and Damascus suburbs. Expectations here are that the Iran-Russia ‘partnership’ will achieve something dramatic in short order while exposing American timidity and unreliability to the region.
Yet, Russia’s dramatic and escalating intervention here may well complicate matters for Iran. Just like some condemn Washington for not acting sooner, some here suggest that if Tehran had gone all-in with large ground forces earlier in the war rather than relying on Lebanese, Iraqi, Yemeni and Afghan Shia militia, then Syria and the Assad government would not have needed Moscow’s involvement. As it has turned out, Iran has pleaded with Russian since last July’s visit to Moscow by Qasem Soleimani since 1998 commander of its Iran’s Quds Force, to join them in defeating the “terrorists and takfiris.” Now, Iran is no longer Syria’s sole patron and Putin’s Russia will have a major- if not dominant- decision making role in how the conflict develops. Some Syrians, including a large percentage of Sunni, no doubt resent Shia Iran’s role and would welcome the return of Russian influence at Tehran’s expense.
Until now Tehran and Moscow appear to be sharing the same short-term goals.
There are rumors among journalists that Russian President, “Abu Ali Putin” will soon pay a dramatic visit to Damascus to discuss a “political solution” and assure the region that his country is back and can be trusted to keep its word. This, as Washington and NATO are fascinated by the modernized Russian missiles and artillery they are closely scrutinizing while publicly posturing that “Putin has made a big mistake and will soon learn the price he will be forced to pay.” And just yesterday (10/16/2015) French President Francois Hollande assured the EU summit that Russian intervention won’t save Syria’s Assad.
Meanwhile the Syrian people are the ones who in the past, present and future pay the price and hope that the carnage will end soon and that perhaps Russia and Iran can achieve the peace settlement that the USA and its allies could not.