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Russian soldiers in Damascus: politics isn’t everything

While politics is the reason for Russian military presence in Syria, the relationship between Russian soldiers and Syrian civilians is not fundamentally about politics. 

“They are ‘the foreigners,’ the white and blond.” A cartoon on Russian soldiers in Damascus (Comics4Syria/SyriaUntold). All rights reserved.

This article by Rafia Salamah (pseudonum) is the outcome of an ongoing partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy Russia (oDR) that aims to shed light on the social and economic repercussions for both countries of the Russian military intervention in Syria. It first appeared on SyriaUntold.

Their presence is renowned but rarely witnessed. You hear a lot about their role in the news and from friends who witnessed the tragedies they have caused in the country. Yet regardless of where you stand politically, the mixed feelings they evoke in you as a civilian in Syria are still ambiguous: Russian soldiers.

For opposition forces, the term “Russian intervention” has come to encapsulate the painful end of their fight against the regime and its allies. It was hardly news that the Russians stood by the regime, as they had vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions, but it was Russia’s airstrikes that caused the opposition to lose most of its control on the ground.

Since early 2011, Russian military experts have been overseeing information and communication and providing both equipment or technical support, according to a regime army officer. The military cooperation soon evolved into naval deployment near the ports of Tartus and Latakia on the Mediterranean, before the inauguration of the Hmeimim Air Base which made Russian military all the more direct and definite. Finally, Russian troops were officially deployed in Syria in late 2015.

Contact with civilians explicitly grew following the truce between Damascus and its countryside on February 27, 2016, which despite numerous breaches remained in effect until its collapse in mid-November 2017. Nightlife in Damascus began to flourish, and Russian military personnel, along with Syrian military escort, began to frequent the nightly attractions across the Old City.

Soldiers and tourists

As such, Russian soldiers in the city became more visible, whether in military uniform and or in casual clothes typical of tourists — light and practical. Nonetheless, their unusual presence still causes winks and backbitings, and their visibility is still relative, as most Syrians have not seen any Russians until now.

People often hear about them from Syrian troops. “We’re not allowed to approach them or to talk to them. We can’t even ask for a drink of water,” said Naji[i], a volunteer in a paramilitary force, summarizing his relationship — or lack thereof — with Russian troops in the vicinity of Raqqa prior to its “liberation” by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October 2017. “They offer them exquisite meals from fancy restaurants and ignore us, even though they stay in the rearguard and never take part in raids,” he told his mother, who works as a maid and wanders the houses of her employers all over the city every day.

Even if they came to help fend off terrorism, she opined, they should not be treated differently from Syrians

She has not seen a single Russian soldier, despite her extensive mobility in Damascus. Even if they came to help fend off terrorism, she opined, they should not be treated differently from Syrians. She is supportive of the regime but more reluctant about its allies.

Most Russian soldiers can be seen in the commercial city center, in the areas of Muhafazah or Marjeh, or in old markets like Hamidiyyah, Medhat Pasha and Buzuriyyah. They are frequent customers of money changers, where they exchange foreign currencies — often US dollars — for Syrian Pounds, so that they can buy food, gifts and antiques, just like any tourist.

“Oh, they’re Ru’us and Nukha‘at,” remarked Abu Rahaf, a money changer, punning on their demonym [Rus means “Russians” in Arabic] and a popular Syrian dish (lamb’s head and bone mallows) to whose fat he likens their economic vitality. They are the sole buyers of touristic goods, given the near absence of trade with tourists willing to pay more than what Syrians — or religious tourists coming from Iran or Lebanon — can afford.

George, a silversmith at the As-Sulaymaniyyah market, spoke of their peculiar interest in daggers, noting that they are learning how to haggle over prices like Syrians, and are managing to find cheaper shops. They seem to be adapting to the city.

Political stance

It is safe to assume that, while politics is the reason for Russian military presence in Syria, the relationship between them and Syrian civilians is not fundamentally about politics. Some loyalists are delighted to see them, and they regard them as the allies who guaranteed Assad’s triumph. However, given the increased public resentment over the outcome of the war and its high human cost, in addition to extremely poor living conditions, whatever is reminiscent of the conflict cause discomfort before anything else.

“They’re all after their shares,” a taxi driver in military uniform shrugged, pointing to the payoffs all the parties to the war are looking for, and swearing at his ill luck since his enlistment for reserve forces two years ago.

Most regime supporters interviewed by SyriaUntold are quite unsure of Russian intentions. Foreign relations are always tinged with skepticism and fears of conspiracy. A long history of fear-mongering and overstatement of Syria’s enemies and strategic location, according to Baathist school curricula, do not go away easily.

Others prefer to ignorantly boast the might of the “Soviet” ally, as many insist on calling Russia, clinging to a bygone socialist era they believe to be still alive. This is hardly surprising, considering that others on the opposition side still praise Saddam Hussein and his alleged devotion to Pan-Arabism.

Russians are mere tourists in the eyes of the population, despite wearing military uniform and carrying weapons from time to time

Dissidents are understandably taken aback by the sight of Russian soldiers. Those who spoke to SyriaUntold, however, all shared their greater hatred towards Shiite tourists. “Don’t call me sectarian, but I’d rather see Russians than those Shiite tourists swarming the Old City,” said Jaber, a lawyer opposed to the regime. This comparison indicates that, inside the city, Russians are mere tourists in the eyes of the population, despite wearing military uniform and carrying weapons from time to time. Apparently, the sense of superiority and unabashed love for Bashar Al-Assad, which an Arabic-speaking Lebanese tourist may casually brag about, worries people more than a shy presence of strangers completely detached from the local dynamics of the war.

The flag of the Syrian Arab Republic flies over Damascus. Photo CC-by-NC-SA-2.0: Henry Patton / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This overlaps with a historically strained relationship between the Lebanese and the Syrians, as well as an old legacy pertaining to Syrian-Russian relations. Young Syrians, for instance, still consider studying in Russia a good way out of the country. This is the case for loyalists and dissidents alike. Abu Samer, a communist dissident, considers that any opportunity for “the boy” to flee the war and the haunting military service is good, even if in Russia, “our enemy.” His son is starting an MA program there, and he drove him all the way from Salamiyah to Damascus airport. “I mean, if he got a visa to the States nobody would object,” he said further justifying what he did.

Academic missions to Russia have always been an available option for Syrians, and the encounters between Syrian and Russian people have taken different forms, whether in marriages, in nightclubs, or in the streets — where those “selling garments” on the sidewalks are known as “the Russians” even if they were from eastern Europe. All these factors render the interrelationship more tangible and complex than an external observer would think.

Cultural whiteness

Terms like “Russian expert”, which became a Syrian joke evoked whenever someone appears to have extensive knowledge about something, implies acknowledgement of their development and our backwardness. The relative “whiteness” of Russians is hard to deny, as they rank higher in the power hierarchy and are easier to be fond of — even as enemies. They are “the foreigners,” the white and blond. Their superiority can be perceived in the bewildered curious eyes following their movements, and in a common willingness to communicate with them and to help them out, even in such simple matters as showing them the way.

Perhaps this is not always the case, however. The few dissidents willing to express their views, in addition to some IDPs coming from formerly opposition-controlled areas, show great aversion and bitterness.

Politically, some opposition parties view Russia as closer to them than the regime, and are willing to engage with it

This does not negate the fact that, politically speaking, some opposition parties view Russia as closer to them than the regime, and are willing to engage with it. “They’re the only ones who didn’t lie to our faces,” one High Negotiations Committee (HNC) member stated recently in a closed session held in Europe. In a strangely triumphant tone, he suggested that the hopes of the opposition and “the Syrian people” should be reposed in Moscow. Many parties within the Syrian opposition welcomes the international recognition that the solution is Russian. Their optimism stems from the lack of options.

The main Russian troops in charge of monitoring the “de-escalation” are stationed in Al-Wafidin Refugee Camp, which is inhabited by IDPs from the Occupied Golan Heights and adjacent to the frontlines with Duma in the Eastern Ghouta.  However, the area has recently witnessed a bloody escalation.

The troops are visible to those heading towards the city and passing by military posts. Awatif (35), a grocer resident in the camp, spoke of a Russian soldier’s admiration for her. She knew he is a Muslim because he muttered words when he heard the adhan [call for prayer] while riding the bus to the camp. “He sung me a song that I didn’t understand, but I think he was trying to say that he likes me.” Awatif does not cover up her delight to have a Russian like her. She simply sees him “more handsome” than the other “dark-skinned” guys in the camp, as she unmindfully put it.

Long relationship

If today’s economics are the mirror of tomorrow’s politics, then we can expect a long-standing presence. The advertisements of companies importing Russian goods are spreading on public roads, irrespective of the quality of these goods. Other signs advertise exhibitions that involve Russian industrialists. What Bashar Al-Assad previously described in a speech as “heading eastward” is becoming a reality for the capital’s merchants, as it creates encouraging prospects under an economic embargo unlikely to be lifted soon.

According to a Syrian lawyer working on the cases of political prisoners, Russians have a tendency to help in these issues. They have done that several times with many activists living in Syria. He confirmed that the Russians called off several arrest warrants and provided some dissidents with information about detained relatives. This is at least the case of those who engage in dialogue with them, as opposed to those who categorically refuse any dialogue with Russians. The lawyer maintained that they are trying to be popular and appreciated amongst Syrians.

Regardless of Russia’s lack of concern about its own political prisoners, it appears to be set for a long-term presence in Syria, which is warranted by well-known geopolitical interests. There seems to be no considerable rejection by Syrians, loyalists and dissidents alike, to this presence and these interests.

Translated by Yaaser Azzayyaat.

About the author

SyriaUntold is an Arabic and English online journalistic platform born in 2012 that focuses on exploring expressions of civil society and creative resistance in Syria. It primarily aims to strengthen the voices that emerged in Syrian civil society and public sphere after 2011, making them more visible and understandable to a local and global audience.

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