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Ukraine and Syria: Understanding the differences in US military aid

  • Omer Ozkizilcik
  • 12 May 2022

Why was Washington quick to provide political and military support to Ukraine, while it hesitated with Syria, also resisting Russia's attacks?

US President Joe Biden speaks about the Russian attack on Ukraine during a news conference after a NATO summit and Group of Seven meeting at NATO headquarters, Thursday, March 24, 2022, in Brussels. ( Evan Vucci / AP )

At the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Washington initially pursued a policy of strong rhetoric and sanctions, combined with trying to convince other countries to take action against Moscow. 

But with the growing successes of the Ukrainian army and increasing domestic and international pressure, the mood changed. The US announced two arms packages to support the armed forces of Ukraine in its efforts to protect their soil. 

While the US shift to be more active was well-received in the transatlantic community, it raised questions, particularly among Syria watchers, about why Syrians who fought and continue to resist a Russia- and Iran-backed Bashar al Assad regime did not see similar political and military-financial mobilisation.

The different approach of the US to Ukraine and Syria is grounded in three aspects: the levels of geopolitical priority Washington assigns to the two countries, the international zeitgeist, and cultural affinity.

A military aid comparison

The US recently announced a new weapons package for Ukraine worth $150 million, as the war-weary country entered its eleventh week of conflict with Russia. This was preceded by a military aid package worth $800 million authorised in late April. 

President Joe Biden has also requested a $33 billion Ukraine aid package from Congress. He reiterated his request last week by saying that for Ukraine to succeed against Russia, the US and its allies have to ensure the continued flow of weapons and ammunition into the country. 

On the other side, Syrians fighting against Russia, Iran and the Assad regime in Syria received much less military aid and it mainly focussed on the fight against Daesh. Yet, even in this context, instead of supporting the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime and its allies, the US preferred to support the YPG/PKK terror group under the guise of fighting Daesh. 

According to a train and equip programme approved by the US Senate, the US approved the spending of $1.95 billion for the period from 2017 to the end of 2023, which amounts to about $279 million per year.

US military aid allocated to counter Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, was about half the amount set aside to fight Daesh. US intelligence had established a $1 billion covert programme named Timber Sycamore to support the moderate armed Syrian opposition against the Assad regime and Iran. When Russia intervened in the war in 2015, this covert programme managed to halt any initial Russian offensives by supplying the rebels with TOW anti-tank guided missile systems.

Even though the US military aid to Syrians against Russia was relatively small and composed of old Soviet-made weapon systems mostly procured from the Balkan states, they were effective. During the early months of Russian intervention in Syria, rebels used TOW anti-tank missiles against Russian tanks. The numbers of missiles used dropped over time. Until the Timber Sycamore programme ended in July 2017 following a decision by former President Donald Trump, Syrians used dozens of TOW missiles against Russian- and Iranian-backed forces, and in some cases directly against the Russian military. 

As military support decreased, Syrian rebels lost more and more ground against Russian-backed military offensives. Between the years of 2017 and 2020 the rebels lost the bastions in Ghouta, Qalamoun, Rastan, Deraa and most of Idlib and the surrounding territories of the Hama and Aleppo regions.

Calls by the official representative of the Syrian people, the Syrian National Coalition, for military aid to counter Russia in the Middle Eastern country after the start of Russia’s assault on Ukraine did not resonate in Washington.

Different contexts 

For Washington, Syria’s location and its geopolitical importance was not a priority. The US policy in the Middle East centred on Israel, the Gulf States, and Iraq; it did not include a strategic vision for Syria. The war came on the tails of the US’ Iraq War and Libya experiences and amidst its pivot to East Asia. 

Combined with the White House’s uncertainty about what would await them in Damascus should the Assad regime fall, the Obama administration hesitated to take action – then-President Barack Obama did not even follow up on his “red line” of a chemical weapons attack after the 2013 nerve agent attack in Ghouta.

But a Russian military victory in Ukraine, particularly in the 2022 context, would create significant geopolitical and security challenges for NATO and the US. Whilst the international outcry over Syria was framed as humanitarian in nature, in Ukraine it is framed as geopolitical and security-based nature — thus much more effective from a policy selling standpoint. A similar hesitation would not be tolerated by European states and NATO allies of the US, as well as the domestic audiences who would punish such a decision with adequate measures.

The international atmosphere and the Zeitgeist vis-a-vis Russia changed massively since the Ukraine War. More states and more actors now would be open to the idea of limiting Russia in other spheres of the world and more people understand that the inaction over Russian crimes in Syria helped facilitate the Russian attack on Ukraine.

The cultural affinity of Ukrainians to Europe is also of great importance. Though more difficult to measure, the repeated ’blonde hair and blue eyes’ discourse in mainstream media coverage of the conflict in Ukraine not only symbolises the difference in attitude to refugees, but also one in military solidarity. Meanwhile, the media discourse surrounding Syrians opposing Russia came in the the post-9/11, ‘War on Terror’ context. Therefore, media depictions of Syrian Arab men with beards chanting ‘Allahu Akbar' were not perceived kindly — to put it mildly.

American foreign policy hasn’t been, and likely won’t be driven primarily by humanitarian concerns. Just as European states reacted differently to Ukrainian and Syrian refugees, the US reacted differently to Syrians and Ukrainians resisting Russia's attacks.

That said, the question still remains as to why the Biden administration continues to have such a low interest in Syria and does still not see the value of Syria in confronting and limiting Moscow. 

It is understandable why both conflicts are perceived differently in Washington. Yet, what is not clear is why the difference is as big as it is. It reflects the incoherence of US foreign policy to have such a low profile in military aid to Syrians resisting regime aggression facilitated by Russia.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

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