What’s With Syrian Recognition of Georgian Breakaway Territories!

President Bashar al Assad has recognised the independence of the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saurabh Kumar Shahi gives the lowdown on the development.

Last month, President Bashar al Assad of Syria recognised the independence of the Georgian breakaway territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia creating ripples in the Caucuses. While de facto independent, these territories were only recognised by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and by each other. Even after the Russian-Georgian War in 2008, Russia stopped sort of recognising the territories. However, following West’s recognition of Kosovo’s breakup from Serbia, Russia acted swiftly and recognised both the entities.
Under the circumstances, Damascus’ recognition of these two territories is seen as a diplomatic gift by the Syrian Government to Russia that has propped the government since the outbreak of foreign-backed rebellion. But it was not a long time coming.
According to the sources, Moscow’s convincing of a possible recognition of the breakaway regions came much later. In fact, they also confirm that the entire process of convincing started almost four-six months after Donald Trump was elected as the President of the USA. Back-channel negotiations between Washington and Moscow started on a range of issues, and seasoned Russian negotiators immediately recognized that the Trump Administration is almost desperate to start positive engagement with Russia, and this could be used as a leverage to force its hand.
Sources close to intelligence in Damascus insist that prior to the election of Trump, the issue of the recognition of the breakaway regions was not even raised by Moscow in passing, leave alone seriously discussing with Damascus. Even when the issue was mentioned in discussion with Damascus formally, which happened somewhere around July 2017, it was not the most important issue and was discussed at the end of the meetings, almost as an afterthought. The really serious discussion started after December 2017, when Trump Administration started sending concrete signals to Russia over reengagement. These signals convinced Russian strategists that the US might agree to declare its annexation of Crimea legal, and wanted to test its reaction vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia first. Only when Moscow realised that it can get away with this that it started to seriously discuss the issue with Damascus, which first happened in December last year.
The convincing part took six months as Syrians had some reservations, especially in relationship with Golan Heights and the Kurdish held SDF regions in the North and the North-East. Benjamin Netanyahu in one of his several visits to Moscow brought the issue of the recognition of Golan Heights with Russia. Netanyahu wanted to parley the recognition of Golan in lieu of its green-light to the Syrian regime to start its operations in Darra and Quinetra, but this was summarily rejected by Moscow, and Netanyahu was told that Moscow and Damascus will go ahead with the operation irrespective of Israeli green-light. This gave Syria the confidence that Golan will never be recognized by Russia as Israeli territory.
Further, by March this year, it also became clear to Moscow that Donald Trump is desperate to withdraw from both Syria and Iraq, especially when the report regarding Russian and Syrian government help to militias in East Syria started emerging. When the United States suffered two casualties at the hands of these militias, Trump was livid. It asked his advisors to give him presentation as to why does the US staying in Syria and Iraq is beneficial to the US, and none of the advisors managed to give any solid reasoning. This happened in March this year. While they gave reasoning as to why it was beneficial to Israel, they could not convince Trump why it was beneficial for the US.
Around the same time,Hashd al Shabi also started threatening US forces. Trump realized that if Americans got killed in the run-up to the midterm poll, it will probably make Republican lose the polls massively, and thus he started giving a public statement over how he wants GCC Arab countries to send their forces instead. This spooked the Kurds who opened a back channel negotiation with Damascus just three days after this statement was made. Damascus realized that Kurds were cornered and will now eat from their hands and they started putting their demands, most of which were fulfilled by the Kurds. This included a joint mechanism to control the province of Hasakah as well as later the towns of Raqqa, apart from allowing the citizens of these regions to enrol for compulsory military service with the Syrian Arab Army.
This convinced Damascus that the backlash and damage to its recognition of the breakaway regions of Georgia will be minimal.
“This move is really important for three sides: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia. The Georgians have missed a goal and will certainly try to come back. They have certain instruments for that. First of all, they may block the foreign economic activities and the cultural contacts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Even though Syria’s step will hardly become a precedent – as was the case with Kosovo – it will certainly strengthen the international positions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” writes political analyst and journalist Anton Krivenyuk, who keeps a close watch on the Russian diplomacy and activities in the Caucuses.
The European Union said in a statement that the Damascus’ move “violates international law and the principle of territorial integrity as defined by the United Nations Charter and relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”
“The European Union fully supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders,” Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said.Clearly, lots of blusters and very little substance.