In August 2017 Syria’s capital city Damascus hosted the 59th international fair. Among the guests of the fair were Abkhaz de-facto foreign minister Daur Kove and minister of economy Adgur Ardzinba representing the republic.
At the first meetings held with prime minister Imad Khamis and then with foreign minister al Muallem, Kove talked about the need for deeper relations between Syria and Abkhazia based on mutual interests and stressed that the US, which has been trying to isolate both Syria and Abkhazia, is their shared enemy. In addition, Kove said Abkhazia supports Syria in their cause to defeat terrorism.
The Abkhaz delegation went so far as to express willingness to sign a free trade agreement with Syria. They believe that Abkhaz goods can be used to fill a supply gap for certain products affecting the Syrian market. The two de-facto ministers also stressed Abkhazia’s transit potential for Russian goods, claiming that it would take ships just five days to cover the distance from Sukhumi to Latakia port.
A return visit took place in early October when the Syrian parliamentary delegation went to Sukhumi to discuss the prospect of bilateral relations with Daur Kove.
The first informal contact between the Syrian representation and the Abkhaz side was made in December 2015 in Moscow, where the Syrian ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, met then foreign minister of the de-facto republic Viacheslav Chirikba. After the meeting, Chiribka said he was hopeful that the sovereign state of Syria would partner with Abkhazia in future and recognise its independence.
In November 2016, the Abkhaz took to the streets in Sukhumi, holding Syrian flags and banners in Arab and Russian to show their support and solidarity with the people of Syria. President Khajimba of the de-facto republic addressed participants of the rally pledging unequivocal support to the brotherly people of Syria in their fight for peace against terrorism. Later on, in his interview with Arab news agency in Syria Khajimba highlighted friendly relations between Syria and Abkhazia.
In December 2016 Sukhumi hosted the first freestyle wrestling tournament for national teams of Abkhazia and Syria. In early August 2016 first batch of humanitarian assistance – 12 tones of mineral water Kodori, was shipped to Syria under the leadership of the Abkhaz Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Repatriation Committee and with the support of the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Repatriation is an issue of concern for both Abkhazia and Syria. Within the first five years of the Syrian war, more than 500 Syrians of Abkhaz origin whose ancestors had moved from the Russian Empire to Syria during muhajirship in the mid 19th century, returned to Abkhazia. According to the Abkhaz side, there are more than 5000 Syrians with Abkhaz background residing in Syria.
The self-declared republic has been making efforts to encourage their return to Abkhazia and thus increasing the share of ethnic Abkhaz in the population. From 2012 to 2014 the Abkhaz government wired 1.5 million US dollars to the Repatriation Fund set up specifically to support Syrian returnees through finances, accommodation and education. Abkhazia has pledged to provide free classes in Abkhaz and Russian languages and job search assistance.
Chances of recognition
The only contact between the current Syrian authorities and Georgia was established in 2010 when then foreign minister of Georgia Grigol Vashadze paid a visit to Damascus to meet with his counterpart. The conversation concerned Georgia’s non-recognition policy and the potential development of tourism between the two countries.
On the eve of 2016 in the aftermath of intensive air attacks over Aleppo, Georgia allocated100,000 US dollars in support of children affected by the conflict in Syria. The donation was transferred through the UN inter-agency Humanitarian Response Plan led by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Relations between Georgia and the Syrian Arab Republic go back to 1994, however, this has not resulted in a direct representation between the two countries. Georgia covers Syria through its embassy in Cairo, Egypt, while Syria deals with Georgia by means of its embassy in Yerevan, Armenia.
Suspicions that Syria will recognise Abkhazia’s independence are not entirely groundless. Bashar al-Assad’s maintenance of power and authority in Syria is a result of Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict since 2015. For the past two years Syrian governmental forces, aided by Russia’s active land, air and maritime operations, have been effectively and successfully fighting off the rebel Islamist groups and terrorist organisations ISIS and HTS (former Al-Nusra front). It seems that the six-year civil war will end with Bashar al-Assad’s victory. Russia and Iran are likely to be the architects of this win. In addition, Russia is one of the guarantors of a cease-fire agreement in Syria and the initiator of Astana talks around political transition.
Assad’s survival, in the direct sense of the word, has brought Syrian authorities close to Russian interests. Against the backdrop of harsh anti-Americanism that Assad’s regime has demonstrated, a tendency toward pro-Russian politics is becoming steadily stronger.
Being the US’s key ally in the Middle East’s neighbouring Caucasus region, Georgia enjoys a strong strategic partnership with the US and perceives it as one of the most important players in maintaining its security. Following this logic, Georgia supports the Western coalition in the Syrian conflict. In March 2017 Georgian foreign minister Mikheil Janelidze condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria and underscored the need for an adequate and proportional response to the respective party: Assad’s regime.
More challenges ahead
This reality has pushed the Abkhaz side to progressively and actively advocate for the recognition of its independence by the Syrian Arab Republic. So far, the Syrian leaders have agreed to establish informal contacts with Abkhazia. Whether or not these contacts will be brought to an official level, depends on several factors.
Reinstatement of its territorial integrity is the biggest challenge for the Syrian state. In addition to the presence of Islamist groups, there is a looming threat posed by Syrian Kurds and their People’s Protection Units (YPG) who have been controlling almost one-fifth of the Syrian territory in the north-eastern part of the country, since the outbreak of the civil war. Supported by their main ally, the US, Syrian Kurds have undertaken vigorous military operations against ISIS.
The second problem which Syria has been facing for decades concerns the Golan Heights. Two-thirds of the area has been under Israeli control since the Six-Day War of 1967. The remaining territory is governed by the Syrian administration while UNDOF is deployed to oversee the buffer zone on the divide. From 1967 to 1981 the Golan Heights were under the Israeli military administration’s control.
In 1981 the Knesset passed a law on the Golan Heights pursuant which moved the administration to the Israeli government. The international community regards the Heights as occupied by Israel, but the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 467 proclaimed the annexation of the Golan Heights by Israel illegal.
Possible recognition of the de-facto republic of Abkhazia by Syrian authorities runs the risk of creating a range of threats to the country. First of all, Kurdish separatist forces would acquire strong political and legal instruments towards reaching their end goal – granting Syrian Kurdistan a status of at least federal unit. This is regardless of the fact that the Syrian authorities have condemned the independence referendum organised by the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and expressed their support to the Iraq’s territorial integrity.
Secondly, the Syrian Arab Republic will no longer be able to use a legal justification in the international arena and therefore, will lose their ground for claiming Golan Heights as their own. In spite of Syria’s strong dependence on Russian military-political support, it would be difficult for them to formally recognise Abkhazia’s independence as they run the risk of compromising their state integrity. However, it is likely that the parties would maintain and improve bilateral relations at an informal level.