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Russia's Expansionist Aspirations Aren't Bothered by 'Marginal' Issues Like Syrian Human Rights

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A Syrian soldier distributes aid from Russian forces to Syrian civilians near Damascus in 2018.
A Syrian soldier distributes aid from Russian forces to Syrian civilians near Damascus in 2018.Credit: Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

A horrific video clip has been circulating on social media for the past 18 months, showing six Russian combat soldiers abusing the body of a Syrian civilian, Mohammed Taha Ismail al-Abdullah.

The soldiers, mercenaries for the Wagner Group, which Russia deployed in Syria and subsequently in Libya and other African countries, took their time butchering Abdullah until decapitating him. It’s impossible to watch this clip to the end; the horror is too great.

It’s even more difficult to understand what led these murderers, clearly laughing and enjoying themselves, to film the terrible crime, which took place in 2017 near the city of Homs. More than a year ago, Russian media outlet Novoya Gazeta posted the film, and the next day, its building was attacked.

At the time, Russia denied any knowledge of the incident as well as the activities of the Wagner Group, but Russian media outlets and human rights groups were able to identify six of the murderers and even publish some of their names. With the help of these human rights groups, the victim’s brother sued the Wagner Group to force the Russian authorities to investigate the murder and put those responsible on trial. Although this is an unusual case,the first of its kind, in fact, it is unlikely to achieve its goal. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for the Wagner Group, as well as his close relationship with the group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, ensures their protection and the freedom to act with impunity.

Meanwhile the FBI has offered a reward of $250,000 for information leading to Prigozhin’s arrest, due to the suspicion that the Wagner Group operated the army of trolls that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

The Abdullah affair is an extreme example of the conduct of the Russian mercenaries, but is by no means an isolated incident. Last week a number of Russian human rights groups published a comprehensive report on severe human rights violations involving Russian forces in Syria. In the 198-page report that took two years to write – entitled “A Devastating Decade” – documents hundreds of crimes in which Russian soldiers and officers are accused of invovlement, including cases of abuse, torture, disappearances, demolitions of hospitals and schools and the murder of civilians. At the end of the report the authors demand an international investigation into war crimes committed in Syria.

The report states that its purpose is to give Russian citizens information that most of them are unaware of, but it’s difficult to assess how interested Russians are in possessing this information. Great courage is required to publish such a report in Russia, because it is likely that the regime will act vindictively towards them. This is especially true due to the international pressure on Russia, due to sanctions imposed by European countries following the poisoning of Alexei Navaly and U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy of advancing human rights.

The publication of the report and international pressure have not deterred Russia from its goals in Syria. Economic inroads in Syria, which last month marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the civil war, are increasingly deepening into the Mediterranean and beyond. Nine years ago, Russia and Syria signed a limited agreement by which Syria would send crude oil to Russia in exchange for refined petroleum products.

Later, additional agreements were signed that gave Russia preferred status in exploiting Syrian oil fields and generous concessions for the development of new ones. In December 2019, the Syrian parliament approved an agreement with two Russian oil companies which received contracts for natural gas exploration in Syria. Both companies, Mercury and Velada, are owned by Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group.

Last month another strategic layer was added to the economic relationship when the two countries signed an agreement allowing Russia to search for natural gas in Syria’s economic waters, covering an area of some 2,250 square kilometers west of the port city of Tartus. This extensive agreement has upset Lebanon and Turkey as well as the countries of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, including Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The marine border between Syria and Lebanon is in dispute, and Lebanon has warned that the agreement could take some 750 square kilometers to which it claims ownership.

Turkey, who a year ago offered Russia joint management of the Deir al-Zor oil fields to rid them of Kurdish forces, fears that the Russian-Syrian agreement could pit Turkey against Russia due to the expected overlap between Syrian and Turkish waters. Here, a new diplomatic front could open up between Russia and Turkey, in addition to those that developed between them in Libya and subsequently in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Russia turned Syria into a launch pad for its policy of expansion westward and southward, the purpose of which is to turn it into a key power not only in the Middle East but also vis-a-vis Europe. This aspiration will not allow “marginal” issues like human rights to stop it.

And so, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has raised the issue of assistance to Syrian refugees and citizens to the top of the agenda in an online UN Security Council conference at the end of March, Russia is looking at maritime maps in search of natural gas drilling sites.

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