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Arabs face hunger as Syrian mercenaries join the Ukraine inferno

Syrian and Russian soldiers at a checkpoint near Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria, Mar. 2, 2018. (Reuters)
Syrian and Russian soldiers at a checkpoint near Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria, Mar. 2, 2018. (Reuters)
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21 Mar 2022 02:03:45 GMT9
Baria Alamuddin
21 Mar 2022 02:03:45 GMT9

The World Food Programme is warning of a “wave of collateral hunger” around the world as a result of the carnage in Ukraine. Arab states are likely to be among the hardest hit.

Ukraine had been the WFP’s second-largest supplier of wheat. The WFP plays a crucial role in war-ravaged Syria and Yemen, the latter importing 90 percent of its food. Ukraine accounts for 80 percent of Lebanon’s wheat supply, and officials warn that stocks will run out within a month.

Many of the world’s poorest states import well over a third of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Other essential goods such as sunflower oil and fertilizer will also be badly affected. With Russia’s crucial position in the oil and gas market, the world is straitjacketed into a perfect storm of soaring energy and food prices.

Starving Lebanese citizens would never have believed that their cost-of-living situation could further deteriorate. But as these conflict-driven shortages and price rises kick in during the coming months, and countries compete to monopolize insufficient resources, 2021 may come to be seen as a year of plenty. Already, the phenomenon of endless queues at Beirut petrol pumps is reasserting itself and flour is being rationed. Syria’s already debased currency could plunge to catastrophic levels, particularly as a significant proportion of Syrian currency is invested in Russian banks and may not be recoverable.

Hunger breeds anger. Already Iraqis have been out on the streets protesting about price rises — but they haven’t seen anything yet. Increases in regional food prices from about 2008 were a major factor in triggering the so-called Arab Spring, as well as later uprisings in Sudan and Algeria.

Many of the most vulnerable states, such as Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, share a common denominator — excessive Iranian influence. Just as occurred in Iraq, Lebanon and in Iran itself in the past three years, mass protests by desperate citizens against spiraling living costs are likely to manifest themselves as outrage against hostile interference by Tehran.

Bashar Assad remains in power thanks to the Russian air force – now Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling in that debt.

Baria Alamuddin

Iran sits on a powder keg after two years of the ravages of COVID-19 and a badly mismanaged economy crushed by years of sanctions. Parts of the Iranian media lashed out after Moscow obstructed the finalization of a new nuclear deal, which Tehran desperately needs. Russia demanded impossible guarantees about doing business with Iran despite sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine.

Several mainstream Persian newspapers criticized the hardline media for its pro-Russia tone, noting that Russia never had Iran’s best interests at heart, and that Moscow had actively allowed daily Israeli missile strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and elsewhere. With each new bout of mass unrest and public outrage, the Islamic Republic becomes increasingly fragile. Will the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine be the straw that breaks the Ayatollah’s back?

Bashar Assad remains in power only thanks to the Russian air force and the Revolutionary Guard assisting him in murdering hundreds of thousands of Syrians and bombing proud Arab cities such as Aleppo and Homs into dust. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling in that debt.

When Putin signaled his interest in recruiting 16,000 Syrian mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, some analysts saw this as cheap propaganda to unnerve the West. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warns that about 40,000 Syrians have already signed up to fight. And why wouldn’t they, when they can earn about $15 a month fighting at home compared with up to $3,000 plus “death benefits” for killing Ukrainians? These aren’t just unemployed youths off the street, but personnel from some of Assad’s most prestigious military units.

Many Russian conscripts abandoned their vehicles and deserted en masse after discovering they were being sent to slaughter their Ukrainian neighbors. In contrast, these Syrian divisions have copious experience at remorselessly murdering their own countrymen, leading many to fear a bloodbath and a transformation in the dynamics of the fighting in Ukraine.

Given this outflow from Syria of Russian troops and mercenaries, the Assad regime could find itself weakened militarily and economically, even if it cares little that its citizens are left to starve. Assad would be in serious trouble if a bankrupt Kremlin compelled the Syrian regime to pay off billions of dollars of war debts.

A GCC official told me that Assad could travel cap-in-hand to whichever regional states he chose, but aside from direct charitable aid to the Syrian people he will never receive a dirham of support that could end up on the pockets of the Revolutionary Guard or his regime itself.

Putin’s Chechen “adopted son” Ramzan Kadyrov has been boasting about fighting alongside Russia. Meanwhile, many anti-Kadyrov veterans of the Chechen conflict, including Chechen jihadists in Syria, have signaled their intention to travel to Ukraine for a fresh opportunity to give Putin and Kadyrov a bloody nose. Some Crimean Tartars established anti-Russian militias and urged to other Muslims to join their fight. This has all the makings of a vicious set of sub-conflicts by Muslim factions in a Christian-majority state.

While Europe has responded with commendable vigor to the Russian invasion, it is largely a monster of the West’s own creation; it sat back and watched the slaughter in Chechnya and Syria, the invasion of Georgia, and the illegal annexation of Crimea. History provides ample evidence that when dictators are given an inch, they take a mile, knowing they can get away with it. Identical mistakes are being made in allowing Iran to dominate the region.

The war-ravaged Middle East has been beset by two years of plague and is now to be afflicted by famine as a result of the Ukraine war. Several states have offered to play a diplomatic role in encouraging Putin to see sense and halt the carnage. Faced with hunger, economic collapse and renewed civil unrest, the Arab world has a major stake in hoping that such efforts will succeed.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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