Russia says “nyet” to Damascus Spring

Russia, Assad share goals, for now

By Nicholas Nehamas

Russia appears to be getting what it wanted in Syria: chaos and carnage.

In the three days since Russia’s United Nations ambassador and his Chinese counterpart blocked the U.N. Security Council from issuing an Arab League-sponsored statement in support of the Syrian revolution, Syrian army shelling has killed more than 300 people in Homs. A video from al-Jazeera shows the aftermath of one such assault, and here is a detailed timeline mapping the complicated course of Syria’s nearly year-old revolution.

Russia’s state-backed Ria Novosti said its government’s decision was a pragmatic one, based on realpolitik.

That’s Mr. Nyet, to you

Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Middle East and a loyal customer of Russian arms dealers. The Syrian port of Tartus is also Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean. A foreign policy expert at Moscow State University told Ria Novosti Russia’s move was “perfectly clever” self-interest.

Syria's Bashar al-Assad welcomes his ally Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Russia’s foreign minister, the “supremely self-confident” chain-smoker Sergei Lavrov, and its intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov, are in Damascus meeting with Assad. On Tuesday Lavrov announced that the Syrian president had agreed to schedule a popular referendum on a new constitution.

“It’s in our interests that the Arab peoples live in peace and harmony,” Lavrov said. Lavrov is known for his penchant for telling Western powers “nyet.” He sounded strangely Western in warning that Assad’s ouster would lead to an Islamist take-over of Syria, echoing Assad’s own claims (though Assad’s most serious opposition, the Free Syrian Army, consists of former soldiers who defected because of government atrocities).

The Chinese state news-agency, Xinhua, reported that its government opposed the UN resolution because of a longstanding policy of non-intervention. China also opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the bombardment of Libya.

Syria continues to face external pressure. Its long-time ally Turkey recently broke with Assad. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would soon propose a new resolution on Syria to the United Nations. The Saudi Gazette reports that a league of six Gulf nations will formally recognize the FSA as Syria’s only legitimate government at its meeting in Riyadh on Saturday, February 11th.

 Who belongs to the Syrian revolution?

In broad terms, writes Mohja Kahf, a Syrian-born American poet and author, the revolution is made up of three distinct groups: 1) young pro-democracy veterans of the 2001 Damascus Spring 2) the non-ideological working and middle-classes who have long suffered economic and political disenfranchisement in the face of rampant government cronyism and 3) the traditional opposition, which includes Kurdish separatists, communists, the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-core Salafists. She argues that the second group is the most important and most numerous — ordinary people who are sick of the Assad regime’s brutal violence and naked corruption, and are willing to fight in the streets for a new government.

Kahf is skeptical of a post-Assad Islamist takeover. “We will have to fight the Muslim Brotherhood politically, those of us Syrians who disagree with their platform, as well as the platform of other forms of political Islamism, and we will also have to fight the repercussions of the fact that the US seems to like this revolution—and we will do those things in a POST-Assad Syria.”

Army defectors join an anti-Assad protest in the town of Hula, near Homs, several days ago. (Reuters)

A post-Assad Syria is a growing possibility. Even members of Assad’s own Alawite religious sect in Homs have publicly condemned him, writes the International Business Times. Alawites, who belong to a mystical branch of Shi’ism, make up just 13% of Syria’s population—over 70% of Syrians are Sunni—but have come to dominate government thanks to the patronage of their co-religionists the Assad family.

Memory of a massacre

Many Alawites who remain pro-regime say that their support for the status quo is not ideological. “If Assad goes,” one Alawi student told Reuters, “I’m sure I’ll either end up dead or leave the country.” Syria’s Christians, who number around 10% of the population, support Assad for similar reasons of self-preservation.

Of course, this is not the first time an Assad has massacred Syria’s citizens. In February, 1982, the forces of Bashar’s father, Hafez, massacred around 40,000 people in the rebellious city of Hama. Click here to read a recent memoir by Bara Sarraj—a dissident jailed and tortured by the Assad regime for almost a decade—on his return to the ruined city one month after the slaughter.


  • Anonymous

    read an excellent, comic-book style explanation of the Assad family’s rise to power: (from SLATE)

  • Castaneda

    I think that pretty much everyone is tired of your amateurish explanations of world news.

    • Castaneda

      haha sorry, one of my co-workers just pranked me. great article, nick! I’ve always felt that you have a unique and apt take on current events. Keep up the good work, and tell Baba I said hi!