Putin turns to ‘Butcher of Damascus’ for help in Ukraine

Rayan El Amine

 

When Vladimir Putin overhauled his military command in the immediate aftermath of the Kerch Bridge bombing, it was an indication that he picked Sergei Surovikin, who earned the sobriquet “General Armageddon” for his relentless bombing campaigns in Syria. Two years ago, Human Rights Watch named him among those they held responsible for deliberate attacks on civilians in Syria that could “amount to crimes against humanity.” 

In the immediate aftermath of Surovikin assuming command, Russia responded to the Kerch Bridge bombing by bombing cities across Ukraine, appearing to deliberately target civilian areas. This might not be a change of tack but it reflected Surovikin’s style: no form of military action, lawful or not, was off limits. 

Surovkin’s appointment follows Putin’s announcement last month that Russia was pulling paratroopers out of Syria to join the war effort in Ukraine. With an estimated 80,000 plus soldiers dead, Russians need all the troops they can get. But does this mean that Russia is giving up on Syria?

Russia for now maintains a vice-like grip in Syria, insists Ammar Yaser Hamou, senior editor at independent media organization Syria Direct. “It’s important to understand,” he says, speaking in Arabic, “that Russia’s control has not changed.” While the assaults by the Syrian regime, supported by the Russians may have slowed, he explains, this has less to do with the war in Ukraine than it does with a ceasefire deal signed with Turkey in 2020. 

As it stands, life for Syrians has not looked all that different: Russian officials continue to exert power over civilians in the south; Russia maintains a presence in north-east Syria, especially in the city of Deir ez-Zor, on the banks of the Euphrates; and the Khmeimim Air Base — a hub of the Kremlin military intervention in the Middle East and Africa — remains readily in use and completely untouched. 

Reports from earlier this month, following an attack on northwest Syria, warned of a returning Russian offensive. Analysts asserted that Russia would use violence in Syria to show that it retained the power to act around the world. Many of these reports, it turns out, were not entirely accurate. Much of the confusion stems from how the Syrian regime has functioned as essentially a puppet for Putin. Its weapons and planes are mostly Russian. Identifying whether these were Russian soldiers carrying out the attack, or if Russia was involved, is both difficult and unhelpful, says Hamou. “Speaking in these general terms hurts the advocacy against the Syrian regime,” he explained. “It doesn’t aid opposition.” 

Instead, Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine might have revealed how important the Kremlin are to the Syrian regime’s hopes of retaining effective control. Following the invasion of Ukraine, when Russia withdrew a number of its troops from southern Syria, it opened the door for an expansion of Iranian militia into the south. What followed was a significant uptick in the smuggling of drugs, particularly Captagon (an amphetamine), through the southern border and into Jordan. That effect was felt throughout the region.

Last year alone, the value of trading in Captagon in the Middle East, practically the only market for the drug, was estimated at well over $5 billion. In Syria, some reports suggest, the manufacturing and sale of Captagon is literally the business of the state, with high-ranking figures in the regime and their families rumored to be connected.  

“Russia was showing the world, ‘look what happens when I leave the region,’” Hamou said. Perhaps, though, Russia is maintaining only an illusion of control. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf nations voted to condemn Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of Ukrainian territories, rather than abstain. The Gulf countries would be wary of increased Iranian influence in Syria in the absence of Russia and might turn to the European Union and the United States for support. Israel too might increase its targeted strikes in Syria were Iranian influence to grow.

“If the Russians were to be tested in the future: by opposition forces, or through the support of the United States, or Saudi Arabia,” Hamou told me. “As it stands, Russia would be unable to support the Syrian regime as it did in 2011. They would be helpless.” The reality is that Russia probably cannot sustain two all-out wars in Ukraine and in Syria. And Russian weakness in Ukraine will weaken its influence in Syria, still of vital geopolitical and strategic importance to the Kremlin. 

No wonder then Putin has turned to Surovikin, reportedly Assad’s favorite general.

PUTIN’S USEFUL IDIOTS IN THE WEST

Russia is finding friends in every nook and cranny of the West, whatever their contrasting politics or influence on the public conversation. 

  • Exhibit 1 is of course Elon Musk, whose attempt at an alternative career as a Twitter pollster has won him ardent fans in Moscow. The respected political scientist Ian Bremmer revealed that Musk may not just have been blundering into geopolitics but actually doing Putin’s bidding, even if unconsciously. The questions in Musk’s poll might have been an exact reflection of the options laid out by the Kremlin — essentially a refusal to negotiate unless Crimea is acknowledged as Russian territory. Musk says he’s only spoken to Putin once in 18 months and it was about space. But why would Bremmer be making any of this up?
  • Exhibit 2 is Bernie Sanders’s former press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, who interviewed Aaron Maté, a reporter at the fringe website The Grayzone, on her podcast and allowed him to accuse the United States at length of sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines. Criticizing the propagation of conspiracy theories is not the same as calling for no-platforming. Maté has a right to his opinion, but surely Gray could have put up more resistance. 
  • Exhibit 3 is Jeffrey Sachs, who is also convinced that the U.S. sabotaged the pipelines. Though at least he does say “probably.” Sachs says he is terrified that the conflict in Ukraine is escalating towards nuclear war. But why talk about escalation and then irresponsibly pick a side when accusations are flying back and forth with little by way of evidence?

Who needs Tucker Carlson or Fox News?

WHAT WE ARE READING: 

  • This investigation by the Wire into Meta’s preferential treatment of Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s infamous IT cell in India, a vast network of trolls dedicated to pushing out Hindutva propaganda and inundating journalists, often women, with abuse, became mired in controversy. The story alleged that Instagram would take down any post flagged by Malviya, as part of the privileges extended to him by Meta. It pointed out examples and claimed that over 700 posts were removed in a single month after Malviya complained. But Meta denied the story aggressively. The Wire responded by publishing an angry internal email from Andy Stone, communications director at Meta, that they said confirmed their story. But the email was written in suspiciously Indian-inflected English. Stone is abrasive and little liked, but seems like that the Wire was hoaxed? The storm in a teacup is detracting from the real and really disturbing story. How cozy is Meta’s relationship with the BJP, as evidence mounts that the party benefits hugely and unfairly from the company’s various platforms. 
  • This analysis of Russia’s influence peddling in Burkina Faso from the Conversation makes for fascinating reading. We’ve also reported extensively about the Wagner Group’s operations in the Sahel.

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior editor Shougat Dasgupta. Frankie Vetch contributed to this edition.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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