Russia’s involvement in Syria has significantly influenced the situation on the ground. But President Vladimir Putin is not the only Russian leader interfering in Syria. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has also deployed more than a thousand troops to Aleppo and has reportedly spent millions of dollars to restore ancient mosques in Syria.
Salam Kawakibi, director at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, said in doing this Kadyrov is building himself an image of a peacemaker and entrepreneur.
“People in Aleppo have a hierarchy of occupation. They have Hezbollah from Lebanon, considered an occupation army. They have their own Syrian militia, they are afraid of those militias, and they have the Russian troops,” Kawakibi explained.
He said people in Aleppo believe that Chechens are better disciplined than the others – and Russia takes advantage of this.
“They show people that they are Muslim like them, they stop tanks to pray with them, they rebuild their mosques. It's huge propaganda for normal people, and it can work,” Kawakibi said.
Hromadske journalist Ostap Yarysh sat down with Salam Kawakibi, director at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies to discuss Russia’s involvement in Syria.
Greetings, Salaam. So the first question, during the talk you mentioned the role of the Russian presence. In your opinion, why does Putin need this war in Syria?
In principle, Putin needs war in Syria to keep his power, because he has a lot of domestic problems. To keep national solidarity around him, to have the legitimacy also, in the view of some of his public opinion. And to enforce his image, because the economy is in a very bad situation in Russia, they don't have any real industry, they have bad relations with all European, and American and even some countries in Asia. They need, as one of the advisers of Gorbachev told me, Putin cannot stay without war. I cannot believe that he can build peace, or that he can work for a peaceful solution. In Syria, it's a way to have a strong argument to negotiate with Western countries on other issues, like on his annexation of Crimea, or eastern Ukraine. He also asked NATO not to put missiles in Baltic countries. He wants to sell his gas at a preferred price to Europe, and stop the importation of gas from other countries to Europe. He wants a lot of things, and the Syrian issue is a good opportunity to use it as a card for negotiation. Bargaining to have a better position in negotiation. He doesn't want this negotiation with Europe, he wants to negotiate only with America, because he believes, and he isn't completely wrong, that if America decides, Europe follows.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
In your opinion, does he have any final aim in this war? Or it doesn't matter and he is interested only in continuation of this?
I think we can't go deep in his mind because he's not a clear person. He's a guy from the secret service, and he's a school on his own on secret service, everywhere in the world. It's a school of thinking, of strategy, of vision. He believes now that he needs to win the situation he manages, and look after for another situation to manage future situations. I don't think he has a strategic vision, he has a tactical vision. Like he's a Judo player, you think about your play now, you don't think about your play the next day. You must win the match in the moment. As I said, he looks to keep his influence in the region, to impose on European and Western countries to recognize this position in the region, and to recognize the return of Moscow to international diplomacy and relations, equivalent to the United States and even more strongly than the United States, especially with such administration.
Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Today in Kyiv we are talking about bringing peace to Syria and Ukraine. Of course, there are mostly differences between the Syrian and Ukrainian case. But still, in terms of Russian intervention, Russian presence in Syria and Ukraine, what similarities can you mention?
I think "making peace" is a big lie. I don't think he believes what he says when he talks about making peace, because you cannot make peace with the massive killing of the population. You cannot make peace with massive destruction of cities, you cannot make peace with creating hatred between people. Even if he really believes in the interest of Russia as a nation, he cannot do what he does now, because Russia can build a good relationship with the region without the use of force. Now he uses force, he uses massive killing, and the future will be very bad for the position of Russia and the country, and the whole region also. Perhaps he will win now, in the moment, the war. But the future of Russia in the region is condemned because the memory is here. The Syrian conflict or Syrian war is the most documented conflict in history. We have videos, we have voice registration, we have papers documented. Everything is documented. If we don't have international justice now, or international hope to resolve the problem, in the future our children will look at history and put their fingers on the responsible for the massive killing, as we did it years ago about the Nazis. We will do it in the future about all war criminals everywhere in the world.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
Talking about the presence of private Russian military groups in Syria, for example, the Wagner Group. How big is their role in the Syrian conflict?
In Syria, it's open space. You have 36 Shi'a militia, from Iran, Pakistan, from Lebanon, from Iraq. You also have the Russian mission there. The figures are not fixed. We cannot have confirmation about their figures, but they are used by the Russian administration because they keep their soldiers from being engaged on the ground, and they send mercenaries. Even if in the Russian law it's forbidden to belong a mercenary company, it's the reality. When they lost more than 100 mercenaries in the east of Syria, attacked by the United States, Putin didn't react. Even if those were hundreds of lives, of Russian citizens, they don't exist and he doesn't care about it. They are not soldiers, and they are not registered in his army. They are used everywhere in Syria. Not only in the east, but even in Aleppo, in Damascus. They work like Blackwater in Iraq, American mercenaries, as private militia. But they apply an official policy of the Kremlin.
You also mentioned during your talk that Aleppo is going to be rebuilt by Kadyrov's people. Can you please tell us more about the situation, because it's not commonly known here in Ukraine.
No, Aleppo was destroyed, the eastern part of the city, the old city, historic part was completely destroyed. Kadyrov engaged himself with 10 or 12 million dollars to build the old Umayyad Mosques in the center of the old city. But also, he sent more than one thousand soldiers to be like military police in Aleppo, to control the city. It's also a matter to send a message to Iran to not be very present in the city, because the Chechens come from the Sunni community and Iranians are Shi'a, and it's a message to try and make a [...] on the site of the city. But also in the mind of the Russian administration, they said that Aleppo will be a Grozny solution. What do they mean about the Grozny solution? That we destroyed everything and we rebuilt everything, like Grozny. A new city without any respect to the historical heritage. Now UNESCO threatens to preserve historical Aleppo, or they retire Aleppo from the UNESCO patrimony because Aleppo is a very old city, 7,000 years [old]. In the mind of Kadyrov, the Grozny paradigm is very present in the reconstruction of the city. We destroyed everything, and we build malls, new buildings, very kitsch, to show the people that we rebuild the "peace" on the bodies of the hundreds of thousands of citizens of Aleppo.
So Kadyrov is trying to [make himself look like] a peacemaker but what do people say?
Peacemaker, and also entrepreneur. People in Aleppo have a hierarchy of occupation. They have Hezbollah from Lebanon, considered an occupation army. They have their own Syrian militia, they are afraid of those militias, and they have the Russian troops. They believe that the Chechens are the most disciplined among all those other groups. Russia plays this card to convince people that you have a choice between this, and the worst. They show people that they are Muslim like them, they stop tanks to pray with them, they rebuild their mosques. It's huge propaganda for normal people, and it can work. But for people who are aware, it cannot work, because occupation cannot be replaced by such propaganda.
Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
What about the American president's case? In the White House, Trump often changes his mind. Yesterday he said he wants to withdraw the troops, then he said he wants to stay in Syria. In your opinion, is it important for American troops and Western allies to stay in Syrian cities to keep the peace, or is it better to withdraw all these groups in leave Syria alone?
We don't know what Trump wants from Syria. He's an impressionable person, he can say something today and completely contradict tomorrow. You don't have American soldiers in the cities in Syria. They have a small presence in the Kurdish area next to the Kurdish forces. They are not present to keep peace even in Syria. They manage their relation with Russia also in their mind to solve other problems in the world, and they don't care about Syria. Their main target in Syria is fighting against ISIS. The success of the Russian and Syrian regimes are to push all the Western countries to believe in this narrative, that you have the choice between Assad and ISIS, and of course you choose Assad, because no one will choose the terrorists in ISIS. But it's the Russian tactical way to push Western countries to jump on this trap, and I think now for the moment, when you speak to Western diplomats, in their mind it's terrorism, terrorism, and terrorism. They don't talk anymore about Syrian people, about Syrian democracy, about what the Syrian people want in the future, it's behind them.
In your opinion, what has to be done by the international community? First of all by countries involved in this conflict, France, America, and Germany, NATO states. What has to be done not only in military cases but humanitarian aid?
I think for military, now it's too late and there is no hope for any military intervention. But on the diplomatic and humanitarian side, we have a lot to do for Syria and others, Ukraine also. We, as Western countries, because I am also a French citizen, we need to have a clear position and clear policy to deal with Russia and Iran. We need to have a unified position, we don't have this unified position. We don't have European foreign affairs, we have 27 European foreign affairs, and we don't have cohesion between a country like France and a country like Poland, or Hungary, or Czech, or Bulgaria and Romania, but even Italy. In Italy now we have a government supported by Putin and financed by Putin. How can you imagine a coherent European foreign policy? Italy will ask to finish the sanctions against Russia, and I think for the moment the situation in Europe is very bad with the rise of the extreme right and populist parties supported by Russian, and also independence movements supported by Russia. Putin wants to take revenge, he accuses of Western countries of being the origin of the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, he wants to do the same to Europe. Europe, as a project, as a dream, is the first enemy of Putin in his deep mind.
/By Ostap Yarysh