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Russia's Grab Of Crimea Bolsters Syrian Regime


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The events in Crimea have generated much talk about a new Cold War, harking back to a time when the relationship between Washington and the Kremlin was all about power moves and proxies.

GREENE: A version of that is now playing out in Crimea and we're going to hear now how prevailing in Ukraine is offering President Putin a chance to make different moves in Syria and how that could affect the fortunes of the Assad regime which Putin has long backed.

MONTAGNE: The Wall Street Journal's Sam Dagher is in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Good morning.

SAM DAGHER: Good morning to you.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you - is there an awareness there in Damascus of Russia having a stronger hand? It has been backing the Assad regime throughout this war. Is there a sense of how the story in Crimea connects back to what's going to happen in Syria?

DAGHER: Absolutely. I mean, they have been greeting what's been happening in Crimea here with jubilation. For instance, in the official media here, I saw something that caught my attention yesterday: Crimea finally back to the bosom of Russia. And this is actually a phrase that they use here whenever the army captures new territory from rebels. So they're making the analogy.

MONTAGNE: So clearly this is affecting certainly the spirit there in the capital, I presume, of Assad supporters. Now, you are reporting that Syria is now indicating - the regime - that it is not going to go back to the table for peace talks in Geneva.

DAGHER: Sure. Well, I interviewed the Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad and he was actually part of the government delegation that went to Geneva. And he's telling me that if the West - mainly the U.S. and the Europeans and the opposition - keep insisting on the need for Mr. Assad to relinquish power, then there's no need to hold anymore talks in Geneva. He said it would be useless.

MONTAGNE: What, in your opinion, brought this on? Is it to do with Russia as a backer or does it have to do with a turn in the tide of the war?

DAGHER: I think it's a combination of both, Renee. I've spoken to a couple of analysts yesterday who follow Syria very closely and they're saying, look, the regime is playing this right. It's taking advantage of these tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Crimea and it knows that Moscow, you know, will not pressure it or lean on it to continue the talks. So obviously they're exploiting this in order to advance their interests and their agenda. No question about it.

MONTAGNE: And the second part of that is that the government has taken back, for one thing, a strategic town there in Syria, Yabroud. So there's also a military component to this.

DAGHER: Absolutely. I mean, now they've taken over Yabroud but you have to remember they only succeeded in doing so with the help of Hezbollah, the Lebanese shia militia which has been fighting with the regime here for over a year now. And also another point Renee, is that they've been taking advantage of all the in-fighting between rebels, particularly, you know, the Islamist factions and the more secular factions, fighting each other in northern Syria.

And they've been making advances around Aleppo. That's Syria's largest city and the economic capital.

MONTAGNE: When the U.S. Security Council adopted that resolution last month on humanitarian aid, of course it did so with the backing of Russia. How much of that aid has gotten through and is that progressing?

DAGHER: Well, progress is very slow. I mean, you have to remember the resolution was pretty specific. It talked about certain areas that are being besieged by government forces. And we haven't seen any progress on this. I mean, for instance, the Yarmouk camp just south of Damascus, you know, hasn't seen aid in almost 20 days and only yesterday they were able to get in a small amount of food and some medicine and that was about it.

MONTAGNE: And of course if there's foot dragging on the humanitarian aid this would be because the government doesn't want to aid rebels who might be among the groups who will be helped if they get humanitarian aid, right?

DAGHER: Exactly. I mean, that's what Mekdad told me, the deputy foreign minister. He said we won't allow any humanitarian aid to reach terrorists and gunmen as, you know, the government here calls the rebels. So it seems like, you know, the U.N. and the United States and other Western powers will not get the unfettered access to these communities, you know, that they've been seeking through this Security Council resolution.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

DAGHER: You're most welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's the Wall Street Journal's Sam Dagher speaking to us from Damascus, the capital of Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.