Russian defiance a confidence builder for Syria’s Assad
Allies • Moscow’s takeover of the Crimean Peninsula signals its new assertiveness.
Published: March 22, 2014 04:27PM
Updated: March 22, 2014 05:16PM
image
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem enter a hall hand in hand for their talks in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. The Syrian authorities are ready to pool efforts with the opposition to fight terrorists, Muallem said in Moscow on Friday. (AP Photo/Pool)

Damascus, Syria • Russia’s growing rift with the West over the crisis in Ukraine has bolstered the confidence of President Bashar Assad of Syria, pro-government analysts here say, emboldening him to press ahead with plans for re-election despite a three-year insurgency and making Syrian officials doubt that Russia will pressure him to compromise anytime soon.

The Syrian government is acting with new assurance as its ally Russia moves to take over the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, dismissing American objections and signaling growing assertiveness against the West. Russia has been the Syrian government’s most powerful backer, vetoing measures against Assad that the United States has supported in the U.N. Security Council. And now, Syrian analysts close to the government say, that seems less and less likely to change.

The prospect of a compromise brokered by Russian and U.S. officials to end the Syrian war seems increasingly remote, with no date set for the resumption of talks in Geneva. Instead, bonds are deepening, on both official and grass-roots levels, between Moscow and Damascus, Cold War allies that now see themselves standing together against Western aggression.

The strong relationship with Russia, combined with recent battlefield victories for the government, like its seizure of the hilltop Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers on Thursday along a strategic highway, are reinforcing a sense here and abroad that Assad will stay in power at least for the medium term. A pro-government Syrian journalist assessed official views this way: “Frankly, their attitude is, ‘We don’t need Geneva.’”

Perhaps having tested the political wind, shopkeepers across Damascus have painted the Syrian flag on the corrugated metal gates of their shops, a statement against opposition groups that adopted a pre-Assad Syrian banner as their symbol. (Some of the shopkeepers say they did so out of conviction; others, because they feared they would face trouble if they did not.)

To Russian and Syrian officials and their supporters, the Syrian war and the standoff over the Crimean Peninsula are essentially part of a single, larger battle, against post-Cold War American unilateralism. They see themselves as resisting Western conspiracies to topple inconvenient but legitimate presidents, Assad in Syria, and in Ukraine, the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, whose flight in the face of street protests led to Russia’s actions in Crimea.

“Crimea is the next Syria,” said a Russian academic, leading a delegation of students in Damascus this week to explore opening a branch of a Russian institute here.

His group - rare foreign visitors to the Syrian capital - ventured out one recent night from the Dama Rose hotel, undeterred by the concrete blast barriers. They packed a nearby restaurant, wearing sweatshirts printed with Russian and Syrian flags. Several days later, two of the students, guarded by several Syrians with pistols, painted a “peace mural” featuring the two countries’ flags on a university building.

Accompanying them were Syrian escorts delegated by the foreign ministry to take them to tourist sites, nightclubs and meetings. Either out of an overabundance of caution or a sense that the visit had strategic importance, the escorts forbade longer interviews without official permission.

Russia’s stance has fostered a new Russophilia among a new generation of government supporters here, who, much as their elders flocked to Moscow to study in the Soviet Union’s heyday, applaud plans for new Russian classes in Syrian schools.

And it has brought displays of long-distance camaraderie between the two governments’ supporters - and their detractors, who see their own, different parallels between Ukraine and Syria. They see Moscow and Damascus as too quick to sanction the use of force against popular protests that the governments dismiss as the work of terrorists and conspirators.

Anti-Russian protesters in Ukraine and opposition activists in Syria have hoisted one another’s flags, as have pro-government demonstrators in Moscow and Damascus.

The Syrian government, not unlike President Barack Obama’s critics in Washington, sees the recent events as part of a decline in America’s influence and a rise in Russia’s. By meddling in the affairs of other countries, from Iraq to the former Soviet countries, said one prominent businessman and political observer in Syria, the United States provoked the world and squandered its position as the sole global power after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“Now there is Russia, China, and tomorrow God knows who else,” said the businessman, E. Ali Al-Ahmad, the general secretary of the chamber of industry in the city of Homs, emphasizing that he was offering his personal political analysis. “America is forcing the world to oppose it. Even a small country like Syria is standing up to the United States.”

The American system contributed much to the world by fostering creativity, he said, waving his iPhone to demonstrate. “But now,” he said, “that system is destroying itself from within.”

During the Cold War, Syria, led by Assad’s father, President Hafez Assad, was squarely in the Soviet orbit, with a planned economy like Moscow’s. Soviet engineers built dams on the Euphrates River. Apartment blocks much like Moscow’s sprouted around Damascus.

Studying in Moscow was a coveted privilege, and thousands of Syrians brought back Russian wives, many still here despite the war. Half of the university professors here were educated in Russia. Among Syria’s government and opposition alike are Soviet-era alumni who speak Russian fluently and fondly remember their days as students in Moscow.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia kept its naval base on the Syrian coast. But when the London-educated Bashar Assad became president in 2000, he turned westward, at least in a commercial sense, opening Syria to Western companies. English, not Russian, became de rigueur among the elite.

Then came the Syrian revolt. Opposing Western support for it was a natural extension of Russia’s long-stated aversion to international interference on human rights issues. With Iran and China, Moscow sustained the Assad government financially, and kept fulfilling arms contracts even as Syria’s Russian-made fighter jets bombed civilians.

Most crucially, after chemical attacks last August, Russia helped avert a U.S. military strike by brokering a deal to remove Syria’s toxic arms. “Thank you, Russia,” read fliers in Russian and Arabic taped to downtown Damascus walls.

Later, the Syrian government announced that next year, Syrian children could study Russian instead of French, in addition to required English. The goal, the education minister told Hezbollah’s Al Manar television channel, was to renew Soviet-era ties and build cultural bonds with “peoples who want to cooperate based on mutual respect and common interests.”

In the Damascus suburb of Sayeda Zeinab on Thursday, Senaa al-Kadoura, a government supporter who had fled her insurgent-blockaded home in the northern Syrian village of Zahra, said she wanted her 2-year-old son to learn Russian.

“Of course, we want to learn their language, because they are the ones helping us,” she said, issuing a general invitation for Russians to visit her home someday.

“We send them our thanks,” she said. “We want to see them in Zahra.”

When tensions rose in Crimea, Assad returned the political favor with an official missive praising President Vladimir Putin of Russia for a “rational approach” based on “international legitimacy” as well as “truth and right.”

That has resonated with some Syrians. One businessman who described himself as reluctantly pro-government said he feared that Crimea could face an influx of foreign jihadists like those fighting in Syria. And the Russians and Syrians meeting about the education project contrasted the relationship to that with the United States.

“Wouldn’t you like them to write, ‘Thank you, America’?” one Syrian host asked an American journalist Wednesday, recalling, in Russian, the signs posted in Damascus.

“But your president is only making threats,” his Russian guest added.

In the town of Kafranbel in northern Syria, government opponents hoisted a sign ridiculing Obama’s promise that Russia would face “costs” for its actions in Ukraine and his 2012 declaration that use of chemical weapons by Syria would be “a red line.”

“Ukrainians beware!” the sign read. “You are alone.”