Russian Interests in Syria

The Cold War is over but Russia has found a new way to stay relevant, and it largely depends on the US not getting involved.

Assad and Putin

A decade after the invasion of Iraq, we look at conflict in the Middle East with a weariness that suggests that America is no longer willing to lead. This is a welcome change for a part of the world that is equally weary of American leadership.

Surely there are many in Syria, rejoicing that the US has decided not to liberate them just yet. But we would be remiss to assume that intervention is opposed by all. There is always intervention. Sometimes it manifests itself with troops on the ground. Leading up to that though, there is the scripted international dance of multilateral talks, negotiations, sanctions, no fly zones and air strikes (now with more robots!).

When Mubarak was deposed, a green light from the US Government, his greatest benefactor, certainly helped. Western European countries took the lead in arming and supporting the rebels who overthrew Gaddafi. Encouragement and sympathy for the revolutions from the external powers may irritate the entrenched regimes in the region, but it is the foreign money and bombs that often topple these governments. While North America and Europe dither (or butt out, depending on your preference), the survival and ruthlessness of Assad’s government can be credited, in no small part, to Russia.

The decade following the dissolution of the USSR was embarrassing for Russia. Having lost territory, population and prestige, it scrambled to consolidate what power it could still maintain. Increases in petroleum exports injected a new sense of wealth and power, albeit one tempered by new expectations. Whereas Moscow contended to be the capital of the greatest power on earth just decades ago, it finds itself taken seriously mainly because it has lots of fuel and big bombs.

For a country that once had proxies all over the world, any chance to flex its muscle in a smaller country’s war is a welcome opportunity, especially one in which the US has been vocal but otherwise uninvolved. That America’s hands are tied (both in terms of domestic appetite for intervention and international credibility) is music to Russian ears. The longer the war persists, the longer Moscow remains relevant, by supporting a regime that would otherwise have already fallen.

Russia has found a war that no other Western power is willing to touch (yet). It’s a sort of super-power-vacuum. Granted, they are not publicly happy about their weapons being used to kill civilians, but by posturing as the facilitator of diplomatic negotiations and the protector of national sovereignty, Russia is hoping to recover whatever it can in terms of international influence. The Cold War is over, but old habits are hard to quit.


More to come on the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria.


A Complicated Situation for Syria’s Minorities

Life under Bashar al-Assad was not great for Syria’s minority communities, but many would rather deal with the devil they know rather than the Islamists who stand to gain from the revolution.

Chances are, man with shoe is not a Kurd, Christian, Alawi, Shi'a or Druze.

Since the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria, thousands of civilians have been killed by Government forces. Although it is safe to say that a significant portion of Syria’s population want regime change, its minority communities are weary of a future without Bashar al-Assad. It is often ignored that Assad’s Ba’ath party (like that of Saddam Hussein until 2003) is resolutely secular and often positions itself as the only thing standing in the way of Sunni Islamist rule. Minority groups are reluctant to oppose Assad because he and the Ba’ath party have historically protected them. 

Syrian Kurds (about 9% of the population) are concerned that Turkish support for the opposition forces increases the likelihood of unfavorable policies under a new regime. Turkey has its own problems with a large Kurdish minority and any help to the mostly Arab opposition forces are seen by Kurds as instigation.

Christians have had a significant presence in Syria since the time of Paul the Apostle.

The Christian community (about 10% of the population) fears that it will suffer a fate similar to that of the more than 1 million Iraqi Christians following the American-led invasion in 2003. As a result of targeted sectarian violence, several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled the country, mostly to Syria, which was then considered safe for Christians under Assad’s rule. Where can they turn to now if forced out? Lebanon?

Other Islamic communities – the Alawi, Druze and Shi’a (about 16% of the population) – are scared of potential Sunni hegemony that would further marginalize them. Assad himself is an Alawite, which often serves as a rallying point for the mostly Sunni revolutionary forces.

Bashar al-Assad, like Saddam Hussein before him, spoke of secular Arab nationalism as the only credible force able to contend with Western imperialism and radical Islamism. Unfortunately, both men rule(d) in such a way that any concessions made for tolerance were overshadowed by the brutality of their hold on power. The Kurds, Christians, Alawi, Druze and Shi’a that make up a quarter of Syria’s population have little sway with either the international community or the revolutionary forces, both of whom want Assad to step aside. Many support Assad out of fear of the alternative, which will only make it worse in the eyes of the Sunni Arab majority when he loses power, which it seems is only a matter of time.

A Million Eyes on Big Brother

2011 saw a surge in protests at home and abroad. In different ways, surveillance has made it easier for the public to monitor of the state, and not just the other way around.

The 9-11 attacks may have effectively put an end to the prospects of ramming a commercial jetliner into a major concentration of people ever again. Similarly, last year’s videos of police brutality may have effectively ended American law enforcement’s current use of pepper spray and force against non-violent protesters. Americans have taken to the streets before, but never have we filmed the whole thing from just about every angle imaginable. For the first time, the public is using surveillance to keep police accountable using video evidence as opposed to testimony.

For most of the Twentieth Century, information technology was a tool of control – a government that controlled the printing presses and the airwaves was a government that was better at controlling its people. With the rise of the Internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s, it became clear that such technology would be more difficult to control. Fareed Zakaria described it best in his 2003 book The Future or Freedom by referring to the current decentralized media landscape as one in which everyone is connected, but no one is in control.

The Twentieth Century view on technology and control was characterized and epitomized by George Orwell’s mid-century dystopian novel, 1984, in which a totalitarian government uses technology and propaganda to monitor and control a tamed population. Two decades after its publication, Gil Scott Heron released one of the most iconic poems of the past few decades – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised lamenting the danger of a docile, media saturated public and offering hope in activism. Whereas the novel envisioned a future of direct and active subjugation, the road to Heron’s perdition was paved with consumer culture and passivity. Both authors feared the slavish control that technology offered to the powers that be.

In the aftermath of the recent revolutions in Egypt and Libya, Western writers have been eagerly and lazily trying to credit Twitter and Facebook for helping to liberate the Arab masses. In our desire to make sense of the situation, we attribute heroic status to inventors and tools that play pivotal roles in historical change. Social networks and micro-blogging are merely embodiments of a larger trend of technological decentralization that has made it much easier to keep an eye on the state. Zuckerberg is a businessman who deserves much credit – people on the street who capture images and video of government brutality are the real risk-takers in this story.

Since September 2011, hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to literally and figuratively “occupy Wall Street”. The demonstrations were initially called for by the Canadian magazine, Adbusters, to take place in New York City’s financial district and have since spread to hundreds of cities around the world, some of them directly related to OWS, others barely. Lower Manhattan, however, remains the cultural epicenter of the movement where slogan “we are the 99%” referring to the Americans who are not among the super-rich top 1% rings clearly. Although critics bemoan the protester’s lack of focus, the common thread so far has been the unhappiness with the inequality and inequity of the American political and economic system.

One of the biggest boosts to the protests has been the (un)popular videos of police officers using excessive force against non-violent protesters. The first such instance was NYPD officer Anthony Bologna (brilliantly referred to by Jon Stewart as Tony Bologna) pepper spraying a group of women who had already been cordoned off by the police. The most notable, and perhaps most disturbing video surfaced last week, showing police, dressed in riot gear, at the University of California Davis campus calmly and intentionally dousing non-violent students with pepper spray as they sat on the floor, passively defying orders to leave. Davis Police Chief Anette Spicuzza issued a statement defending the actions of the officers, claiming that the situation was dangerous and that the students posed a threat and that there was “no way out…of a very volatile situation”.

For years, especially since September 11, 2001, there has been a near religious need, especially among politicians, to voice support for the troops abroad and for first responders at home. Police were seen as the domestic soldiers on the front lines against everything from terrorism and marijuana possession. If you legally carried a gun and worked for the government, your status was suddenly elevated and your actions were less scrutinized. Trusting our law enforcement officials became the new sacred cow.

The most remarkable aspect of the various Davis videos was that there were, in fact, various Davis videos. In just about every version, the viewer can see several, sometimes dozens of students with cameras, i-pads and sometimes laptops hoisted above their heads to capture every second of police activity. Some states have even gone so far as to ban the recording of an on-duty police officer. Thankfully, in August, a federal court upheld the right to videotape such activity as being protected under the First Amendment.

The outcry over the Davis pepper spraying has rightfully captivated the nation’s attention but the outcry following the incident is not an indication that police brutality will go away. The protesters are overwhelmingly upper middle class, educated, and most importantly, tech savvy. It may take some time before the lower socioeconomic classes are able to protect themselves in the same way. Also, technology and surveillance is a two-way street and the Patriot Act is only the public manifestation of a larger trend towards the eroding of our civil liberties and right to privacy.

Superficial comparisons between the streets of Manhattan and Damascus are a red herring. Pepper spray is bad, but pale in comparison to bullets and coordinated brutality carried out during the Arab Spring. If inspiration can be drawn, great, but we must not conflate one tragedy because it somehow resembles a greater one.

The undeniable truth now is that decentralized technology has played a pivotal role in toppling or disrupting several autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. In the United States, it has helped lend credibility to a movement that just months ago was dismissed as a bunch of hippies sitting around in drum circles. The regime continues, but toppling it was not the mission of OWS – the agenda has shifted, and that is no small feat.