Russia is one of the most important allies for Syrian President Assad. The Russians support Syria militarily and economically, but cultural influence is becoming increasingly visible. More and more Syrian students choose to study Russian Language and Literature.
“Our countries have good relations, so knowledge of the Russian language is crucial for discussing economic and political issues with each other,” says one of the students.
Correspondent Daisy Mohr attended Russian lesson at the University of Damascus:
According to Mohr, it‘s a logical step for Syrians to study Russian. “Formerly English and French were popular, but those who speak fluent in Russian have chances of a good job. There are many Russian companies in Syria, and you can work as a translator for the Russian army, for example. In addition, students have a chance to get a scholarship to study in Moscow, a dream for many.”
Syrians are thankful
But Mohr says it goes beyond that. “It is also a way of Syrians in government to thank Russia for all the support that President Assad has given during the war. They have the idea that they need to delve into the Russian language and culture now, because they see Russia as a good friend.”
President Putin has been supporting Assad since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, when citizens demanded Assad’s resignation. The government knocked down protests with a hard hand and the revolution transitived into a civil war. Russia has always supported Syria financially and provided arms to the army. Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, also regularly stops resolutions discussing sanctions against the Government of Assad.
Russian air strikes
Russia has also been a military presence in the country since 2015. The Russian Army performs air strikes in opposition zone and trains Syrian soldiers. “This has caused Assad to regain control of large parts of Syria and is firmly in the saddle,” says Mohr.
But that Russian support does not come without price. Russian interference in the Syrian conflict has been criticised internationally over the years. For example, Russia is held responsible for deliberately bombing infrastructure — such as schools and hospitals — causing many civilian casualties.
“Also this week there are reports of Russian opposition bombing in northern Syria,” says Mohr. “In doing so, citizens, including children, died.”
The alliance is important not only to Assad, but also to President Putin. “With the military assistance to his Syrian colleague Assad, Putin has undergone solid ground in the Middle East,” says Russia correspondent Iris de Graaf. “No one can get around Russia‘s status as a superpower. And that was one of Putin’s main goals, making Russia take part in all kinds of important international decisions and is seen as superpower.”
In addition, Russian interference in Syria is important for Putin to prevent Russian citizens who went there to fight for the Islamic State terrorist movement from returning to Russia. “For Russia, intervention in the Middle East is equivalent to defending its own security in the fight against terrorism. That‘s how Putin justifies his participation in the Syrian Civil War.”
Although Russian interests in Syria are large, the relationship with Assad itself is not so important to Putin. “Whoever is in power doesn’t care much to him. Putin is that Syria remains an ally and Russia can maintain military bases in the country.”
A Lasting Alliance
According to analyst Mohanad Hage Ali of the think tank Carnegie Middle East Center, the countries will remain important allies in the coming years. Hage Ali stresses that Russia will be more and more in favour of saying. “The relationship is unbalanced. Russia clearly prevails and determines what the relationship looks like. This makes Assad more and more dependent on Putin.”
The students at the University of Damascus are aware of the persistent Russian presence in Syria and so they learn hard. “It‘s important that as many Syrians as possible learn Russian because that’s the future,” says student Yara el Ali. “We are in a new era.”