Student Maya Ramadan speaks about Russia’s role in Syrian conflict at the 9th Youth-Patriotic Camp-Forum “Donuzlav 2015”, Crimea
Much of the attention to Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict is, understandably, on “hard power” with the brute force of bombing, paramilitary forces, and army advisors for pro-Assad offensives. But Moscow is also showing skillful use of “softer” instruments for influence.
That “soft power” is reshaping bilateral ties between Russia and the Assad regime. Russian charities, non-governmental organizations, and committees include the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, RUSSAR Charitable Fund, the Combat Brotherhood national veteran’s organization, and the Committee for Solidarity with Libyan and Syrian Peoples.
But there is one initiative that deserves special attention: Russia’s campaign for the hearts and minds of young Syrians, hoping to co-opt them for Moscow’s strategic influence in the Middle East.
Working for Global “Orderism”
The Russian charities and non-governmental organizations are similar in ideology and structure, with overlapping memberships of key personnel. They have very close ties to Russian military and intelligence agencies in the pursuit for international influence and exposure. Their senior personnel have similar biographies, shaped mainly by experiences in the ranks of Soviet nomenklatura, diplomatic corps, foreign intelligence, or the military.
These groups export post-Soviet State-backed propaganda, propelled by the ideas of Russian political and religious messianic global mission as well as “orderism”: the new State quasi-ideology that places a premium on sovereignty, stability and preservation of “patriotism, traditional gender roles, Orthodox Christianity, and military strength”.
In Syria, all the groups work in concert and close coordination in disseminating humanitarian aid. They arrange information dissemination via academic lectures, high-profile conferences, art expositions, and academic and school delegation exchanges. They support Russian language education and implementation of school programs, as well as the Assad regime’s veterans and their families.
These organizations are linked directly with the Kremlin via multiple structural and personal channels, as a virtual extension of Russian diplomacy. Simultaneously, they act as the Russian State’s quasi-official ideological arm with Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese youth, students, and intellectuals. Their platforms stimulate specific ideas to be disseminated among locals and Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese expatriates and exchange students. They also cater to the cooptation and absorption of older Syrian and other Middle Eastern expatriate networks and mixed-marriage families in Russia and Syria. (Most of these date from the 1970s), when scores of Middle Eastern students were dispatched to study in the USSR.
Another key function of the groups are as outlets for representatives of circles close to Bashar al-Assad, such as the Khoury brothers, to be coopted within the ranks of the contemporary Russian elite. They represent a “golden opportunity” for added legitimacy and ample avenues for close personal networking — important when these people are targeted by international sanctions and their ability to execute financial transactions and travel freely in Europe is severely limited.
And there is the bonus of platforms, such as the RUSSAR Charitable Fund, for parallel “unofficial” diplomacy. These aid the official Russian efforts in Syria and the broader Middle East, as in the case of the visits of the head of RUSSAR to Tehran or the endorsement and promotion of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah in Syria.
The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society is the Kremlin’s main device for religious diplomacy. Others remain slightly out of focus.
The current runner-up gaining most attention with its energetic activity and cooperative approach is the RUSSAR fund. The charity was supposedly set up in response to “tragic events” in 2014 by Russian and Syrian citizens with professional profiles, ranging from career ex-diplomats to financial entrepreneurs.
RUSSAR is headed by Oleg Fomin, a seasoned former diplomat who was the director of the Soviet cultural center in Syria from 1969 to 1975 and representative of the Russian center for international scientific and cultural liaisons in Tunisia and Egypt from 1994 to 2006. Fomin also co-chairs the Committee for Solidarity with Libyan and Syrian Peoples and is a high-profile member of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.
The charity is tightly connected to the Russian political establishment via its board’s membership. This includes the former deputy chairman of the Duma, Sergey Baburin; the former Russian ex-ambassador to Syria Alexander Zotov; and the humanitarian projects coordinator of the Combat Brotherhood Nelly Kuskova.
RUSSAR’s main financial backing is from the brothers Mudallal and Imad Khoury, dual Russian-Syrian nationals. The Khourys were minority owners of Tempbank, sanctioned by the US for financial transactions on behalf of the Assad regime in connection with Iran’s gas and oil trade.
RUSSAR is a primer for a special-purpose “soft power” instrument, with synergy between all major stakeholders of Russian foreign policy, such as the so-called “siloviki” (security service), the “Orthodox fraction”, and old-school Soviet diplomats and spies. Its activities feature key topics of “orderism” for global export from Donbass to Damascus, including and using representatives of client regimes and with a special focus on projects involving young people and intellectuals. It is a long-term investment strategy under the veil of humanitarian aid provision, assistance to veterans’ families, and defense of Christian heritage in Syria.
Curating A Myth
During 2012-13, when Syria’s peaceful protests were morphing into a civil war, sympathizers of the regime began to share an image online of Bashar al-Assad in armor, defending the Syrian nation against conspiring enemies such as the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Using St George’s story, Assad’s armored image was used by the regime’s propagandists and circulated mainly by young people on social media. The message was that, without Assad’s leadership, the Christian population not only in Syria but also across the Middle East would be threatened.
From Bulgaria through Western Europe and Russia, Syrian communities were gradually splitting and pro-Assad groups were created to claim, recycle and repeat on television screens and websites: the lone defender of the weak and the Sacred lands is Bashar al-Assad.
In pictures at Damascus’s traditional Christmas procession in 2018, crosses and icons are accompanied by Assad as an armored knight. It is a tribute to the maintenance and propagation of the myth by the network of news outlets, charities, and foundations such as RUSSAR and the Combat Brotherhood.
Youth camps for “patriotic education” build on the Soviet tradition and thrive on the ever-growing militarization of children and youth in Putin’s Russia. The future “defenders of the Russkii mir” are bonded with peers from “Novorossiya”, Belarus, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Syria. These camps prepare the next generation of Putin’s “orderism” loyalists.
The camps demonstrate that Russia’s interest in Syria and the Middle East is far from short-term. Putin sees region as a natural extension for Moscow’s operations from the use of hard military power and mercenaries, such as the Wagner Group, to the youth programs.
Enter the Syrian Children
In July 2015, 16 months after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula, a youth summer camp was held near Donuzlav, once the deepest Crimean lake and turned into a bay by Soviet authorities in 1961.
The location was symbolic: in 2006 and 2007, pro-Russian nationalists and local communists protested there against NATO’s annual Sea Breeze exercises in Ukraine. Now it would host an event organized by Combat Brotherhood, with Russian taxpayers’ money, in accordance with Presidential order 25.07.2014 N 243 under the official slogan of “For Russia! For Victory! For Our Great Homeland!”
The organization committee included notables of the Russian Federation Council’s Security and Defense Committee and high-profile representatives of the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk’s “People’s Republics”. There were representatives of murky propaganda outlets, such as the News Front; activists and instructors from the so-called “Anti-Maidan” movement; veterans of Afghan and Chechen wars; a world champion of mixed martial arts; and members of the infamous Russian biker gang Night Wolves.
And there were 26 Syrian children from families of Assad regime loyalists.
This was the first instance of Syrian juveniles in a “patriotic consciousness awakening and education enhancement” camp in Crimea. Their participation was arranged by RUSSAR and Combat Brotherhood, aided by the Syrian Embassy in Moscow.
Pictures show uoung boys and girls, adorned with ribbons of St. George and dressed in military fatigues with red-star sickle and hammer flags. They participate in “geo-political orientation” lectures to counter “color revolutions”, target shooting, swimming, and running. They are taught the basics of hand-to-hand combat and techniques to spot “provocateurs” in large gatherings. The motto at the entrance of the Camp is “Friendship of the Peoples”.
The five points of the participant’s final resolution pledge their full support for the Russian Government’s policies of “consolidation” of the people of “Great Russia” and the quest of all separatist entities for unification with the Federation. They condemn the US, the European Union, and NATO members for their promotion of “color revolutions” in post-Soviet space. They protest the “aggression” of the US and its allies against the Syrian people and their legitimate Assad government. Finally, they thank the “Combat Brotherhood” for the smooth running of the camp.
Marching to the Future
If the inclusion of Syrian children in the youth patriotic camp was a novel experiment in 2015, developments both in Russia’s military intervention in Syria and on the home front have brought the “standardization phase” of the military training.
Moscow now offers instruction for Syrian cadets, an augmentation of the traditional military academy education for Syrian officers since the 1950s. In September 2018, the first group of Syrian children arrived in Saint Petersburg to begin their studies. Russian senator Olga Kovitidi, active in the support of youth patriotic camps, explained:
We expect that in 10 to 15 years Syrian borders will be guarded by servicemen, that along with Russian servicemen, have received high professional training at the same school.
Russia continues to offer camps and activities for younger Syrian children, especially for selected kids from Orthodox orphanages and children of the Assad regime’s troops who have died in combat. This cultivation of a future military and civilian Syrian elite from a young age is the “soft power” of a network of Russian charities and funds, backed by the Kremlin.