The Syrian and the Belarusian regimes, nowadays both satellites of Putin’s expanding empire, are not just in friendly terms but are connected by tight political, commercial and economic ties that cannot be ignored by those who seek to understand recent events.
In the last few months, a huge humanitarian crisis has been unfolding at the Belarusian-Polish border. Between October and December, thousands of migrants, mainly from Iraq and Syria, most of whom were equipped with a regular tourist visa, arrived in Minsk and assembled at the Polish border in the attempt to reach Europe. In the hot debate surrounding these events, Belarus was accused, especially by the European Union, of “instrumentalizing migrants” with the aim to have EU sanctions reduced and to have President Lukashenko regain some popularity while distracting the public focus from the ongoing Belarusian crisis and from repressive measures adopted against opposers. Bashar Assad received similar, and quite legitimate, accusations: exploiting migrants to put Europe in the corner and accelerate the rehabilitation of his regime.
In November, as news focused more and more on the Belarusian border, videos of people at Damascus Airport boarding planes to Minsk with a tourist visa circulated on social media. Rumors also spread about the existence of Syrian travel agents’ promising travelers a safe passage to Europe through the Belarusian-Polish border for a few thousand dollars. Always on social media platforms, some also talked about the existence, in Minsk, of Syrian-regime-related smugglers ready to accompany the migrants to the border only to leave them at the mercy of frost and violence. Some of these rumors were immediately labeled as “European propaganda.” However, in order to better understand recent events, and figure out if there is a possibility that the two regimes might have, if not actively provoked, at least exploited this crisis, it is certainly worthwhile to make a short excursus of the relations bonding the Belarusian and the Syrian regimes, which boast very friendly diplomatic ties.
Besides being both military regimes of socialist inspiration in Russia’s sphere of influence, they are both used to repressing and silencing opposers with ruthless methods such as arbitrary arrest and torture. But let’s go back to the beginning. The diplomatic relations between Syria and Belarus were established in the Summer of 1993. At that time, Hafez Assad was still alive and Lukashenko was about to step into power. Since then, the relationship has done nothing but improve: from the establishment of diplomatic headquarters in the respective capitals to the strengthening of commercial ties, it has been a crescendo. In several interviews, Lukashenka has described Hafez Assad as a great statesman and has counted him among the “great thinkers’ ‘ of the earth. He has also referred to Bashar Assad as a “a very kind and decent person” and portrayed him as the victim of a Western conspiracy against countries aligned with the ex-Soviet Union. Actually, the two leaders never miss a chance to compliment or congratulate each other. Lukashenko sends greetings on Evacuation Day; Assad sends them on Victory Day. Last spring, when ‘re-elected’, Assad received Lukashenko’s warm wishes, whereas in August 2020, when the latter was ‘re-confirmed’ with the 80,4% of votes, the first was among the enthusiasts who sent blessings, and highlighted how this re-election would provide Syria and Belarus with “new opportunities to strengthen cooperation in all areas and raise relations to a new level in the interests of two friendly countries and people.” The Belarusian Minister of Education has called the relations between the two countries “fraternal, historical and warm” and, on the occasion of Assad’s re-election, highlighted how both countries received “various forms of external interference and pressure.”
Yet, it’s not just about compliments. As a matter of fact, especially since 2004, Belarus and Syria have been collaborating on many levels. Leading universities in the two countries, for example, have solid cooperation programs culminating in joint commissions and centers, such as the joint Belarusian-Syrian Commission for Cooperation in Science and Technology, the joint Belarusian-Syrian Commission on Trade, Economic and Technical Cooperation, and several joint scientific and technical centers. In 2019, representatives of 10 Belarusian universities went to Syria in order to sign, together with their Syrian counterparts, an Agreement on Cooperation between the two republics in the field of graduate and postgraduate education. The two countries also have joint humanitarian projects. The Belarusian Child Protection Center, for example, has created health camps and a specific rehabilitation program for children of dead Syrian regime soldiers.
Most importantly, it seems like Belarus is going to play a major role in Syria’s reconstruction. Since the beginning, the Belarusian embassy in Damascus has been actively supporting in the organization of Rebuild Syria exhibition, an event taking place in Damascus every year (since 2015) welcoming exhibitors from “friend” countries like Russia, India, China, Cuba, and centered around every aspect of the country’s reconstruction, from agriculture to trade, from building to education. Needless to say, Belarusian companies, united under the unitary enterprise Belinterexpo, hold a very important place in the exhibition. It is quite evident that Belarus aims at putting hands on all aspects of Syrian reconstruction: construction work, creation of water treatment plants, supply of agricultural equipment and training, trade, industrial products and restoration of railways. Speaking at the last exhibition, the Belarusian ambassador in Damascus, Yury Sluka, was very adamant and self-assured about his country’s role in Syria: “After more than 10 years of armed conflict […] the Syrian Arab Republic really needs the modern achievements of the Belarusian economy today.”
For Belarus, Syria is a big cake ready to be eaten and a sure way to expand its economy. The strong bilateral relations in all fields and political fellowship allow the two regimes to “legitimize” and strengthen each other in defiance of human rights and freedom.