Why Is Russia in Syria? It's for many of the same bad reasons used by the United States.

AuthorErlich, Reese

I'm ankle deep in mud, on a path to a working-class housing project in Moscow following a late spring drenching rain. I'm on my way to meet Hassan, a Palestinian born in Syria, and Angelica, a Russian, who have been married for thirty years. My boots are covered in muck. Luckily, both Russian and Arab hospitality mandate shoe removal prior to entering a home. On arrival, I am offered tea, coffee, and sweets. I ask for Palestinian coffee. It is strong and bitter.

Hassan and Angelica tell me of their early romance, their leaving Moscow for Damascus just before the Arab Spring, and the horrors inflicted by U.S.-backed rebels, the Syrian government, and Russian troops. They ask that I use first-name pseudonyms because their critical views of Russian policy could cause repercussions from their employers.

I reported from the Syrian-Iraqi border in 2014 as President Barack Obama started bombing Syria with a promise there would be no U.S. "boots on the ground." Today there are plans to reduce U.S. troops in northern Syria from about 2,000 to about 1,000. Similarly, some 63,000 Russian troops have seen combat in Syria as of last year. President Vladimir Putin promised a withdrawal of troops. But the Russian air force and navy have set up permanent military bases there. Hassan and Angelica's story perfectly illustrates the human cost of outside military intervention in Syria.

Hassan is a Palestinian communist who came to Moscow to attend university in 1989. Angelica, also then a student, met him through mutual friends. After a few months of friendship, they decided to marry.

Angelica tells me her family was concerned at first because he was Arab and Muslim. "But then my mom met him and everything was OK," she says. "As my babushka [grandmother] said, 'It's the person that is important, not religion.' It was our Soviet upbringing, our internationalism."

Hassan became a Russian citizen. But the timing couldn't have been worse. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Corrupt officials bought state companies on the cheap, sold off their assets, and drove them into bankruptcy. Organized crime fought gun battles in the streets. Efforts to turn Russian society into a U.S.-style market economy in a matter of two or three years through shock therapy led the economy to collapse. Hassan and Angelica managed to weather the storm and moved to Damascus in 2010.

That timing wasn't great either. The couple moved to Yarmouk camp, the Palestinian district of Damascus, not long before the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia. In early 2011, mass demonstrations broke out in countries backed by the United States: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and others. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad boasted about his anti-imperialist policies abroad and popular support at home. "Syria is stable," he told The Wall Street Journal in January 2011. "Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."

But by March 15, mass demonstrations had begun in Syria. Hassan was not surprised. "I'm from that region and know how the authorities act," he tells me. "They do nothing for people and just steal." Nor was he surprised that Russia backed Assad politically, economically, and with military advisers. Syria and the Soviet Union had close relations going back to the 1960s, when the Soviets supported Arab nationalists against the...

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