30.05.2024 Author: Vanessa Sevidova

The instruments of influence of foreign actors in Syria

The instruments of influence of foreign actors in Syria

All parties involved in the Syrian conflict have their own policy and vision as to how the conflict should be managed, however, said parties also have varying instruments of influence and carrying their own weight in the reconciliation process.

The hands of internal actors, i.e. the Syrian government, the AANES and the Opposition, are tied, and they do not operate freely, be it politically, economically or otherwise; considering the large degree of foreign involvement in the conflict, foreign actors and their backing dictate many things on the ground in Syria, and, thus, have a large and direct influence on any diplomacy on Syria and the situation in general. To evaluate and compare positions of parties involved, it makes sense to focus on two dimensions – economic influence and soft power – and conduct analysis through those prisms. In terms of military positions, there have been no significant changes in the landscape for some years since the defeat of Daesh* and HTS solidifying itself in the Idleb area and there is no reason to believe that this should change in the near future; Turkish military operations have a limited territorial scope and will realistically have to be discussed with Iranian and Russian counterparts and, although talks of a full US troop withdrawal from Syria arose in media recently, the US has shown no indication that this is so. US troops will eventually have to be withdrawn from Syria; however, this is a question for future discussion.

Economic dimension

Syria is currently roughly carved into four main parts, i.e. under the control of the Syrian government (ca. 60–70%, backed by Russia, Iran), AANES (ca. 20-25%, backed by the US), Opposition (SIG) and HTS in Idleb. The years of heavy fighting have resulted in the fragmentation of Syria, the schisms of which run deeply throughout the country. This fragmentation is accompanied by several parallel economies within Syria. The functioning and efficacy of each parallel economy is determined by multiple factors, notably availability of work force, degree of territorial/economic isolation, number of resources and infrastructure available, foreign support, and it is possible to say that, broadly, problems with civilian infrastructure pertain to all corners of Syria to some degree. This raises the question of oil: Syria is witnessing an ongoing energy crisis, with a noticeable oil deficit. Of the 300 million barrels of oil needed by official Damascus every month, only 300 thousand are produced in government-controlled territory. The AANES, which harbours most of the country’s oil fields, produces much more oil: AANES-controlled territory is rich in oil, mineral and water resources, as well as having ample agricultural potential. According to the 2021 AANES budget, oil made up 92% of total revenues, followed by 7% in customs and 1% of various other sources. Dependency on oil revenues have since decreased slightly, comprising 80% in 2022 and 76% in 2023, but remain crucial. Considering the noticeable effects of the practical US embargo on exporting AANES oil to government-held areas and the fact that Syria runs on oil, the government is forced to rely on oil imports, for example from Iran and some Russian companies. Although the government controls most of the country’s gas fields, it does not have the economic potential to undertake a transformation from its reliance on oil in most fields and no military operations on capturing AANES-held, US-supported territories rich in oil beyond the Euphrates are planned.

Iranian economic assistance to Syria has been ongoing since the start of the conflict and represents the largest input out of any other foreign aid. It has since 2014 mainly taken the shape of billions of dollars in credit lines and steadily supplying oil. There are no official numbers for Iranian aid to Syria, however according to leaked Iranian documents this figure is around USD 50 bn. Last year Syria and Iran signed a number of long-term agreements on oil, as well as other sectors, looking to deepen already extensive economic cooperation. Iran also maintains large stakes in Syrian telecommunications, a key industry. Considering the high level of bilateral economic relations, the activity of Iranian companies in Syria and the billions provided in financial assistance, this gives Iran substantial economic influence in Syria, for example by receiving exclusive investment rights in certain sectors and demanding compensation for Syrian debt through the transfer of resources, e.g. phosphates.

Economic relations between Russia and Syria are also deepening in multiple spheres, including energy, industry, agriculture, transport and building housing. Within the framework of the Permanent Russian-Syrian Commission on Trade, Scientific and Technical  Cooperation, Russian companies are also actively involved in the energy sphere in Syria and Rosoboroneksport maintains a representative office in Syria. Russian economic assistance has, in comparison, been less than Iran’s, but it should definitely be considered. Since the start of the SMO, Russia has focused resources on the conflict and its economic consequences, which has put Syria into further economic dependence on Iran.

Exceeding both Iran and Russia and having a much larger investment potential, China has been Syria’s number one trade partner since 2019, with bilateral trade totalling almost USD 416 mn in 2022. Notwithstanding the bilateral trade volume and integration of Syria in BRI, China’s influence in Syria has thus far been limited to diplomatic support alongside Russia in the UNSC. Since the announcement of Syria’s joining the BRI, no Chinese-supported projects have been reported within this scope, and there are several reasons for Chinese hesitance in this regard, including lacking stability within Syria, which makes calculating returns on investments troublesome, a plummeting currency and a general deep economic crisis.

The EU and the US also have a significant impact on Syria economically, though not through cooperation, but through their extensive sanctions regimes, negatively affecting Syria’s potential. The Western sanctions regime is extensive, consisting of primary and secondary sanctions for almost all economic interaction with official Damascus. Sanctions were already in place even before the Arab Spring, with Syria being designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and additional sanctions were added in 2004 (confirming the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act). Since 2011, numerous rounds of sanctions, embargoes and other restrictive measures have been put on Syria, the harshest of which has been the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, extensively targeting non-US Syria-affiliated entities engaging in transactions or any other activity pertaining to the reconstruction of Syria with secondary and derivative sanctions. The Caesar Act is the most significant and strictest expansion of Western sanctions since the early 2000s. The Assad Regime Anti-Normalisation Act (2023) extended the sanctions of the Caesar Act until 2032 and there is no reason to believe that they will be alleviated. Considering the warming of certain Arab states to Syria, e.g. Saudi Arabia, and the ‘return to the Arab family’, economic cooperation between them is not excluded, but it would have to be covert and limited in scope so as to avoid falling under Western sanctions.

It must be mentioned, however, that there are debates as to the extent of the efficacy of Western sanctions. Their primary goal, at the time of their implementation, was to crush Asad economically and force him to concede to Western demands and goals, which has clearly not happened – a miscalculation on the part of the West, which did not anticipate the decisive role of Russia and Iran. The efficacy of sanctions has been further reduced by a lack of coordination between the US and the Eu, as well as by Syria having increasingly sought to deepen economic cooperation with Iran, Russia, China and others.

The soft power element

Although it may be an evasive concept that is, at times, difficult to measure, soft power must not be neglected when evaluating the positions of various actors in Syria (or in any conflict in general). Soft power, unlike hard (military) power, is intangible and takes years to develop and can, arguably, be even more effective if it penetrates a group or society deeply enough; while hard power may force a person to do or say something, soft power influences his behaviour in such a way that he himself becomes motivated to act in a given way. Soft power denotes the attractiveness of a country through its culture, including religion, and general policies.

In this regard, Iran wields massive influence in Syria first and foremost through the religious factor. The Iranian state religion (Twelver Shi’ism) and Alawi Islam, which is practiced by al-Assad and around 2 million people in Syria, share many similarities – many consider Alawi Islam to be a branch of Shiism –providing Iran with a natural link. The Iranian «Shiification» policy in Syria has been going on for years and within its scope Iran has established more than 70 Shi’a religious and cultural centres in the country, which are involved in spready Shi’a Islam, is deeply involved in Shi’circles in Syria, as well as encouraging Shi’a populations to settle in traditionally Sunni areas of Syria, for example transferring Shi’as from Kafriya and al-Fu’a (Idleb governate) to (previously Sunni) areas near Damascus, altering the already diverse confessional balance in the country. Another component of the religious factor is jihad and martyrdom. These two concepts are holy to Muslims and are prominent features not only in strict religious terms, but also in Islamic history, and they play a significant role in the religious, cultural and political identity of Muslims. Iran has highlighted jihad and martyrdom as a feature of identity amongst Muslims in the region by reviving these two elements against the «takfiri movement», i.e. Salafi-jihadist groups. Invoking takfir adds another strong and controversial religious layer to Iranian rhetoric and amplifies existing bitter sectarian tensions, especially considering the historical accusations of takfir between some Sunnis and Shi’as. Iranian rhetoric also employs the fact that takfiri groups, such as Daesh* and Jabhat an-Nusra*, did not and do not attack Israel to further discredit the takfiri movement and its supporters.

Russia also utilises soft power instruments in Syria and their scope has significantly increased since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, particularly in terms of humanitarian aid delivery, emphasising historic relations and the Soviet legacy, culture and Russia’s image as a state standing up to Western double standards, especially after the start of the Special Military Operation (SMO). The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the state news agency, regularly reports on the SMO and completely aligns itself with the official Russian position. Russia operates the Coordination Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides at Hmeimim, which regularly receives appeals from and interacts with locals wanting to cooperate to negotiate ceasefire agreements, coordinates the delivery of humanitarian aid and the return of refugees to Syria. Besides that, Russian Muslim and Christian communities maintain ties to communities in Syria through various organisations, e.g. the Russian Orthodox Church, the imperial Palestinian Orthodox Society, Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation, Arab-Russian Diaspora Organisation, Russian Committee for Solidarity with the Peoples of Libya and Syria, Ingushetia’s Humanitarian Mission and many others.

Some evaluations of Russian soft power in Syria neglect it, saying that it is largely absent; however, this disregards dense existing networks, which have been developed through a combination of Russian-supported organisations operating in Syria, Russian language being taught at schools, diaspora ties, religious institutes and humanitarian campaigns. The humanitarian dimension is arguably Russia’s strongest projection of soft power in Syria, combining hard power and other aforementioned elements of soft power as well. Tens of Russian government-backed organisations and NGOs have provided aid thousands of times to over 700 communities within Syria, wielding a larger influence than the UN, international aid donor and other related organisations. While certain countries operate in a narrower sense within the scope of foreign humanitarian assistance, i.e. assistance in times of natural disasters and conflict, the Russian approach is much broader and encompasses peacekeeping, development and public diplomacy.

No other foreign actors can boast of such expansive soft power tools in Syria. Turkey also uses humanitarian aid deliveries as a projection of soft power and announced plans last year to build 240,000 houses in Turkish-held Northern territories in cooperation with Qatar with the aim of settling a million Syrian refugees there, an extremely controversial project that has evoked allegations of forced displacement, since these Syrians would be picked from among the 4 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey and deported. Such plans could be viewed as a potential projection of soft power, however, considering the hard military line of the Turkish presence in the Syrian North, it cannot be placed in a broader context of Turkish soft power efforts, which remain limited. Similarly, the US presence in Syria is also limited to achieving military goals and lacks the soft power component. Additionally, the EU and Gulf states have absolutely no influence in this regard.

* organisations banned in Russia


Vanessa Sevidova, researcher at the Institute of International Studies of the MGIMO MFA of Russia, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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