Blog | Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Complicates the Situation in Syria

Analysis by Hari Prasad, Program Associate, Conflict Resolution Program

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has had obvious effects on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, but its current and potential destabilizing effects in Syria are not receiving the attention they desperately need.

The pre-existing economic crisis in Syria is on the verge of becoming a catastrophe as shortages grow with the interruption of wheat shipments from Russia, Syria’s primary source of imported wheat. Russia is a key influencer in Syria’s affairs and negotiations, but tensions between NATO and Russia will hamper further diplomatic efforts, and Russia’s withdrawal from southern Syria is being felt.

A drawn-out Russia-Ukraine war could lead to a further shifting of conflict dynamics in Syria, with Iran filling the void; Turkey and the Syrian opposition could increase their pressure on the Syrian government and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); the Islamic State (ISIS) could face fewer military constraints; and Syrians could even be sent to fight in Eastern Europe.

As the world powers focus on how to engage Russia on the issue of Ukraine, it is essential they also consider how the crisis affects the situation in Syria.

Food Crisis

With heavy sanctions from the U.S. and European Union, Syria relies heavily on the import of Russian wheat. Ukraine, also a significant supplier of wheat in the global marketplace, remains unable to export its grain — thus reducing the global supply, leading to shortages and price increases on consumer staples such as bread. The invasion caused food prices to soar in Syria and the region, leading to a massive increase in food insecurity. Other Middle Eastern countries approached large wheat exporters like India to make up for the expected shortfall. India reportedly promised to donate wheat and rice to alleviate Syria’s food shortages. However, a heat wave coupled with rising food prices caused the Indian government to ban all wheat exports. If the conflict is sustained, a more severe food shortage in Syria is on the horizon, which will impact political dynamics — including between citizens and governing entities.  

Diminished Russian role in Syria?

The political process is hampered by the economic crisis. According to Carter Center/ACLED data, Russian military activity in Syria, where it plays a major role, dropped sharply in the initial weeks of its operations in Ukraine. However, by April, Russia’s airstrikes in Syria returned to pre-Ukraine war levels.  Additionally, there have been a few unconfirmed reports of Russia withdrawing its troops from southern Syria to focus on its war effort in Ukraine, leaving a void that may be filled by Iran.

Although reports of a Russian withdrawal remain unconfirmed, the possibility of a Russian-left void remains a concern, and Russia’s actions are destabilizing Syria regardless. Jordan, Israel, and many former opposition fighters remain hostile to Iran’s influence in the border region. Russia did give the green light to the Syrian government and pro-Iranian factions to significantly weaken the power of some former opposition outfits during the siege of Dara’a al-Balad; the violence continues and could escalate without Russian mediation.

Jordan has taken increasingly aggressive measures to curb illicit trade in southern Syria, regularly clashing with drug smugglers and accusing Iran and Syrian government factions of sponsoring the amphetamine trade. In the past, Russia has served as a mediator between Jordan and the government of Syria to discuss border-related security issues. A diminished Russian presence could negatively impact security along the Jordanian-Syrian border, leading to more violence and instability in the region.

In northern Syria, Russian airpower continues to reinforce pro-government control, and Russia helps mediate with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. In several areas, Russian forces serve to deter Turkey and its allies from launching new incursions into northern Syria.

Russia also serves as one of the main guarantors of the March 2020 cease-fire between the opposition and the Syrian government. Russia is a key player in confronting ISIS within Syrian government-controlled territories, mobilizing militias and airpower alike to fight ISIS in the Badia desert region. Jordan’s King Abdullah II called Russia’s presence a stabilizing factor in the border region.

As Russia faces economic sanctions, its ability to support the Syrian government financially and diplomatically will be hampered. The world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and moving away from Syria.  Escalating tensions between NATO and Russia will likely only hurt the already struggling political process in Syria. For example, the U.N. approval required to operate the Bab al-Hawa humanitarian border crossing may face a Russian veto in July.  

Syrian Fighters in Ukraine/Russia?

Social media accounts of commanders associated with pro- and anti-government forces in Syria reveal a stated desire across the board to go to Russia or Ukraine to fight. Opposition sources in Syria claim that Russia is preparing to draft over 40,000 Syrian soldiers affiliated with regime forces to fight in Ukraine. Prominent Syrian opposition fighters have openly expressed their desire to fight against Russia in Ukraine.

The recruitment of Syrians to fight abroad is not without precedent. Since 2020, Turkey and Russia mobilized Syrians to fight in Libya and Armenia/Azerbaijan, fueling international speculation and concerns around the possible presence of Syrians in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Private military corporations associated with Russia and Turkey have maintained active recruitment offices in Syria.

Despite numerous rumors and accusations, there is little evidence of Syrians fighting in Ukraine.  This pattern is not new. In the past, Russia accused Turkey of supporting the former Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) fighters in conducting attacks in Russian-held Crimea, despite HTS’s stance against fighting alongside Turkish forces overseas.

This is not to say that it is unlikely that Syrians will fight in Ukraine. That war could become yet another front that Syrians will fight on, further intertwining the conflict in Syria with that in Eastern Europe.

Anticipating the Peace Impacts in Syria

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has taken up much of the attention among humanitarians, policymakers, and commentators in North America and Europe. Syria’s prospects for peace in a conflict widely viewed by outside observers as stagnant has already been impacted by the Russia-Ukraine war economically and diplomatically. But Syria’s prospects for peace are not stagnant. Peace and resolution in Syria are not rendered impossible by shifting Russian priorities, but Russian interlocutors are crucial in the process of a political resolution. There is concern that prioritization of the Ukrainian conflict without understanding how it relates to Syria will come at a further cost to Syria.

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