Russian Presence Not Viewed as Occupation on Syrian Coast

Most Syrian residents do not use the word “occupation” to describe the Russian presence in their homeland, and some traders even benefit economically from it.

08 November 2017

Hazem Mustafa

Hazem Mustafa (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer and journalist residing in Latakia.

Translated by: Naziha Baassiri

[This is the outcome of an ongoing partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy Russia (oDR) that aims to shed light on the social and economic repercussions of the Russian military intervention in both countries].

(Latakia) The “Russian buildings” (Binayat Ar-Rus), as they are dubbed by the residents of Latakia, stand at the fringes of the city in a small gated neighborhood separated by a wall a few meters tall that dates back to the Soviet era in the eighties, when Russian military experts trained Syrian soldiers on the use of Soviet arms. Back then, Syrians were not allowed to enter the fenced community, which is still the case today, and the same applies to the newer Russian bases.

Syrians can’t enter Russian bases according to an agreement between Moscow and Damascus that was ratified on August 26, 2015. Several unfair conditions are also part of the contract, which was first published on a governmental Russian website before the Washington Post and other Arab press outlets picked it up. However, the agreement did not sway the opinions Syrians who reside on the coast have of the Russians. Most of them do not use the word “occupation” (ihtilal) to describe the Russian presence in their homeland, and some traders even benefit economically from it. In contrast, “occupation” is used to describe the presence of the US-led coalition on Syrian soil.

Old Friendly Relations

In the Syrian coast, most of the locals  prefer to deal with the Russians as they are a “civilized people,” according to 52-year-old lawyer Kamal[i].

“Our relationship as a people with the Russians is old, but it became stronger after the Baath Party rose to power in 1963. It grew even stronger after the Soviet agreement to build the Euphrates Dam, following a decades-long stalemate of the original French-German plan. We got to know the Russians more and more following their brave stance on the Syrian cause after 2015, which prevented the collapse of our state in the face of mercenaries and terrorists,” said Kamal.

Kamal, who has Syrian Social Nationalist (SSNP) tendencies, said that the Russian presence brings more positives to the current Syrian situation than the Iranians do, who paint their work in a religious “jihadist” tone even though they claim to fight terrorism. This is true in form but differs in content to what the Russians are doing as they don’t push a religious agenda, explained Kamal, adding that while they have economic, political and military interests, “it is all clearly contained within their relationship with the Syrian state through international agreements.”

He told SyriaUntold that he had met many Russian soldiers on the streets of Latakia and had found them to be “good individuals who deal honestly with people;” and therefore, “they are welcomed by the people and walk the streets without protection in most of the areas, such as Ash-Sheikh Daher [the city’s commercial center], Az-Ziraah, and the Southern Cornish” [all of which are pro-regime areas]. Even in As-Salibah [where protests took place previously] no one gets in their way.”

Russian soldiers in Syria – and not just on the coast – enjoy privileges that aren’t given to their Syrian counterparts. According to the articles in the signed agreement with Damascus, they enjoy full immunity and privileges same to those usually given to diplomats and their family members according to the Vienna Treaty on diplomatic relations signed on April 18, 1961. Additionally, the Syrian government has pledged not to file any complaints or requests against the Russian Federation or the Russian Air Forces as well as not to pursue any legal action related to the latter’s activities, so as to prevent any future Syrian government from prosecuting the Russians for war crimes in Syria.

Blond Tourists Take Over

There is no lack in the number of Russian soldiers who shop in the heart of the commercial centers of Latakia and Tartus. They usually walk about in twos or threes, and are rarely seen in bigger groups unless a Russian ship docks at the Latakia port. The majority are male soldiers, but there are also a few married Russian women who visit the trendiest fashion houses in the upper-scale neighborhoods of Latakia, such as the Amerkan neighborhood where the first American missionaries resided at the end of the 19th century.

According to an owner of a major men’s retail shop, the expensive prices of goods are not a problem to the “Russian visitors” as “they get paid in dollars.” Fifty-two-year-old Joseph, who works as a trader, told SyriaUntold that “they pay us in dollars and rarely use the Ruble. Even though they are soldiers, they buy civilian clothes to wear when they’re off duty in the Hmeimim Base [one kilometer from the city of Jableh, where the largest Russian base in the Mediterranean is located], and one Russian officer informed me that they’re not allowed [to wear their uniforms] outside the base.”

According to Joseph, the Russians are not an occupying force. “They respect our traditions and customs; they “don’t carry weapons when they are in the city, and they don’t drink [alcohol] in the streets… This isn’t a soft occupation; our relationship with the Russians is historic, and they’re here because of an official request from the government to save the country. Some of them were martyred defending our land.”

Up until today, there haven’t been any direct personal relations between Russian soldiers and the Syrian population, which would be similar to the marriages that took place during the days of the USSR. Yet, there is – in Latakia and in the more rural areas – a number of Russian women married to Syrians who studied in Russia and have since returned to start families in Syria.

New Economic Sectors

More recently, a number of Russian commercial initiatives have popped up on the coast – and not through the military, but through Syrian traders who saw an opportunity to build economic relations with Russia. One such endeavor was in export of Syrian-made shoes “that top their Chinese counterparts in terms of price and quality,” said 46-year-old Mohammad. He produces shoes for ZENDEN, a Russian company that sells a pair anywhere between $15 and $20. The low prices are due to cheap Syrian   labor that primarily depends on the internally displaced and women.

Mohammad reached out to traders through Russian investors who had visited Latakia and Tartus over the last two years. He denied having any commercial privileges. “We have to pay customs like everyone else, but there are obstacles related to the economic sanctions placed on the country. That’s why the importer has to transport [goods] by land, via Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan instead of directly shipping it there.”

Besides Syrian exports, Russian goods have invaded the city’s market as they were imported by the government. And while they had rivaling prices (such as canned products), they failed in the Syria market most likely due to their bad quality. Ibrahim (35), who is a wholesale trader, explained that the best-selling Russian product is alcohol, as it brings back memories of the Soviet era.

Famous Syrian foods, such as charcoal-grilled Shawarma and Falafel, as well as alcoholic beverages and tobacco are the most selling goods among Russian soldiers in Latakia. Many traders and restaurant owners have rearranged their goods to place Smirnoff and other Russian vodkas in their store windows and at the top of their food menus. Husayn (50) is the owner of one restaurant located on the Jableh-Latakia road. He said that he receives on a weekly basis a number of Russian soldiers and officers for lunch, while his local clientele welcomes them. “More recently, the Russians are asking for our local Arak [anise spirit] after they had a taste when we offered them some.”

Aside from economy, the Russian language (the seventh most spoken language in the world) is no longer foreign to the interactions taking place within the coastal community. In 2014, public schools in Latakia started teaching it as an optional language next to French to [13-year-old] seventh graders and above. There’s an increasing demand for Russian teachers, and private educational institutions now include two to three-month Russian courses on their curriculum for a fee between $30 and $50.

Forced Silence of the Opposition

Along the international road between Latakia and Tartus, within the cities, at the entrances of some villages, and even in some store and car windows, pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin are brandished alongside pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad or those of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Maher Al-Asad, the president’s brother.

Dima (21), is a college student from Hmeimim. She talked to SyriaUntold, saying: “We weren’t comfortable with the loud sound of the Russian jet fighter planes as they took off every five minutes. But we, unwillingly, got used to it. We can’t protest especially since the airport itself has been expanded and we’ve been banned from coming close to it.”

There is no public opposition to the Russian presence here, and whoever doesn’t agree often resorts to silence or a Facebook post protesting under a pseudonym. Those few individuals consider the Russians – and the Iranians and Hezbollah -- as an occupying force that serves in keeping the regime in power. Some believe that other forces, mainly the US-led coalition, act as an occupier. Nonetheless, Ahmad (35), who owns a falafel shop in As-Salibah downtown area, believes that the coalition is “helping the Syrian people in the face of the regime and its allies.”

Who Are the Russian Soldiers in Syria?

It is hard to determine the ethnicity of the Russian soldiers within the Russian army on the Syrian coast. The fact that some of them celebrated Easter in 2017 speaks of their Christian faith, though. When Russia officially announced its direct participation in the Syrian war in August 2015, the Orthodox Russian church considered it to be a holy one and blessed the Russian soldiers. This ignited an outcry in the Muslim world, and some linked the church’s actions and announcements to those that took place during the crusades.

There are approximately 20 million Muslims in Russia, with most of them hailing from Tatarstan, Dagestan, and Chechnya. Muslim Chechens fought within the ranks of the Syrian armed opposition since the early phases of the conflict, which was mentioned as one of the official reasons of the Russian intervention. In 2015, according to President Vladimir Putin, in Syria there were already 5,000 to 7,000 Islamic State (IS) fighters coming from Russia and former USSR republics.

At the onset of 2017, Russia sent two battalions named “The West” and “The East” to Syria which include a large number of pro-government Chechens to protect the Hmeimim airport. Both battalions had worked within similar conditions in the areas surrounding the airport. According to Russia Today, these two battalions have a long history in warfare and include the best fighters, as announced by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

These Chechen-looking fighters do not interact with the community in Latakia or the coast in general, as it seems that their tasks include not mingling with civilians here, or they have been instructed not to so as to avoid sectarian tensions. This is contrasted with their participation in the Russian military police force and reconciliation committees in Idlib and Ghutah, where they deal directly with Syrians, as confirmed by a Syrian journalist working as a local TV correspondent. All of this is happening in the framework of the Russian-backed “de-escalation zones.”

Regardless of the Russians’ ethnicity and religious affiliations, many Syrians refuse to define these foreign forces as occupiers. Each has their own political view on what’s happening in the country and this has an impact on their stance towards Russians. Such attitude raises the question on whether the relationship between the occupier and the occupied has fundamentally changed to the point that all patriotic values have disintegrated, making previous affiliations take precedence over national identity. And it also poses the question of whether the Syrian conflict had succeeded in dismantling any connection to national sovereignty. Only time can tell.

[Main image: The Russian “guest” on the Syrian coast (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].

[i] Pseudonyms were used for security reasons.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad