* Michael Doran: Syria is like Humpty Dumpty. Made up of four or five diverse regions glued together after World War I, the country is an accident of great-power politics. Like neighboring Lebanon, it has now dissolved into its constituent parts. The Free Syrian Army isn’t a unified force but rather a network of militias, each with its own regional power base and external patron.
* In the 1920s, the French dragged Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, kicking and screaming into the new Syrian state, which they created. In 1920 Aleppo was closer – economically, socially, and geographically – to Turkish Anatolia than to Arab Damascus.
* When Assad loses Aleppo and Damascus – and this loss is almost a certainty – his Russian and Iranian patrons won’t abandon him. They have no other horse to ride in Syria. Instead they will assist in establishing a sectarian militia, an Alawite analogue to Hizbullah. In fact, such a militia is already rising up naturally, as Sunni defections transform the Syrian military into an overtly Alawite force.
* As the death toll mounts in Syria, the world should be thankful to Israel that the Assad regime never succeeded in developing nuclear weapons – which almost happened in 2007, but for an Israeli airstrike.
Free Syrian Army members preparing to move into the Salahedin district of Aleppo on August 9. Reuters reports that an examination of photos and video suggests most opposition weapons are of Syrian origin
This is the latest in a series of occasional dispatches about the situation in Syria.
There is also a separate dispatch about Egypt today.
You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.
1. “Syria’s coming sectarian crack-up” (Michael Doran, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 13, 2012)
2. “Jordan’s King Abdullah: Assad may seek Alawite enclave” (Jerusalem Post, Aug. 7, 2012)
3. “Syria’s chemical weapons: a risk assessment” (Shlomo Brom, INSS, Aug. 12, 2012)
4. “Thank Heaven (and Israel) that Assad doesn’t have nukes” (Alan Elsner, Huffington Post, July 30, 2012)
5. “Exclusive: Obama authorizes secret U.S. support for Syrian rebels” (Reuters, Aug. 2, 2012)
6. “Syria is different through Russian eyes” (Andrei Nekrasov, Financial Times, July 31, 2012)
Below, I attach six articles about Syria -- Tom Gross
SYRIA IS LIKE HUMPTY DUMPTY
Syria’s coming sectarian crack-up
Assad’s forces will retreat to the north, and an Iranian-backed Alawite canton will be born
By Michael Doran
The Wall Street Journal
August 13, 2012
(Doran served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense from 2007-08, under George W. Bush.)
The Obama administration has been decrying the spread of sectarianism in war-torn Syria and calling for the preservation of state institutions there. A “managed transition” is the new mantra in Washington. This isn’t a policy but a prayer. Syrian state institutions are inherently sectarian, and they are crumbling before our eyes.
Syria is like Humpty Dumpty. Made up of four or five diverse regions glued together after World War I, the country is an accident of great-power politics. Like neighboring Lebanon, it has now dissolved into its constituent parts. The Free Syrian Army isn’t a unified force but rather a network of militias, each with its own regional power base and external patron.
Consider Aleppo. Syria’s largest city, its economic hub, is the central battleground in the current civil war. In the early 1920s, the French dragged Aleppo kicking and screaming into the new Syrian state, which they created. Today, Bashar al-Assad’s schools teach that Ibrahim Hananu, the leader of the Aleppine rebellion against the French, was a great patriot who fought for independence. He did fight the imperialists, yes, but for Turkey – not Syria.
In 1920 Aleppo was closer – economically, socially, and geographically – to Turkish Anatolia than to Arab Damascus. It was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who armed and equipped Hananu and his men.
When the Turks were forced to cut a deal with the French, Hananu’s rebellion collapsed. As a result, the border between Syria and Turkey fell 40 miles north of Aleppo. It could just as easily have fallen much further south, with Aleppo nestling comfortably in the bosom of modern Turkey.
It was anything but comfortable in the new Syria. In the decades that followed, two parties dominated the country’s political life – one representing the interests of Aleppo, the other of Damascus. Each had its own separate foreign policy: Aleppo aligned, naturally, with Turkey and Iraq; Damascus with Egypt. By the mid-1950s, the Syrian state was disintegrating. Iraq, with the help of Turkey, stood poised to take control of the country – a development that would have privileged Aleppo over Damascus.
Then Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s charismatic proponent of pan-Arab nationalism, came to the rescue of his Damascene allies (just as, today, Iran is rescuing Assad). Nasser quickly founded the United Arab Republic, a Syrian-Egyptian amalgamation, in 1958.
Within four years, the Syrians bolted from the union. The country descended into a period of turmoil that ended only in 1970, when Hafez al-Assad imposed a new order with an iron fist. The core of the new regime was a group of close associates of Assad, almost all of them from the Alawite sect, a despised religious minority concentrated in the mountains of the north, above Latakia. The Alawites, who were marginal to the life of the main cities of Syria, rose to power through the military.
The new regime disguised its sectarian character by, among other tactics, stressing its pan-Arab credentials and its hostility to Zionism. There is no little irony in the fact that Assad, an Alawite, played the scourge of Israel. Historically, his sect was immune to the call of Arab nationalism. In 1936, for instance, Hafez al-Assad’s father joined a delegation of notables who petitioned the French to establish an autonomous Alawite canton – one centered on the mountains of the north, the minority’s heartland.
The delegation justified their demand as a necessary defense against Muslim intolerance. As evidence, the Alawite notables cited the unjust treatment that the “good Jews” of Palestine were receiving. The Jews, their petition stated, “scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children.” As a result, “a dark fate awaits the Jews and other minorities” when the Muslims would receive their independence.
By the time Hafez al-Assad took control of the Syrian state, he and his fellow Alawites had learned to embrace the anti-Israeli norms that prevailed among their Sunni neighbors. But beneath this veneer of agreement, the fear of the Muslim majority remained.
The sectarian nucleus of the state has always been a defining characteristic of the Assad regime. But the Alawite order is collapsing today, and it will never be reconstituted. Syria is now a regional battleground, with Tehran and Moscow backing Assad while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan back the rebels.
When Assad loses Aleppo and Damascus – and this loss is almost a certainty – his Russian and Iranian patrons won’t abandon him. They have no other horse to ride in Syria. Instead they will assist in establishing a sectarian militia, an Alawite analogue to Hezbollah. In fact, such a militia is already rising up naturally, as Sunni defections transform the Syrian military into an overtly Alawite force.
If the rebels finally succeed in dislodging the regime from the main cities, it will retreat to the north, and the autonomous Alawite canton that Bashar al-Assad’s grandfather envisioned will finally be born. “Alawistan,” as the Mideast scholar Tony Badran called it, will join Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon as another sectarian island in the Iranian archipelago of influence.
If the breakup of Syria and the rise of an Iranian-backed canton are indeed undesirable, then Washington must get to work immediately to create an alternative. The planning should begin in Turkey, which borders not just Aleppo but also the future canton of Alawistan.
JORDAN’S KING ABDULLAH: ASSAD MAY SEEK ALAWITE ENCLAVE
Jordan’s King Abdullah: Assad may seek Alawite enclave
By Gabriella Weiniger
August 7, 2012
Jordanian King Abdullah II told “CBS This Morning” that Syrian President Bashar Assad will stick to his guns and won’t back down, but may try to form an “Alawite enclave” within greater Syria, in an interview aired Tuesday.
Assad believes he is in the right, King Abdullah told Charlie Rose in Amman on Sunday. “I think the regime feels that it has no alternative, but to continue. ... I don’t think it’s just Bashar. It’s not the individual. It’s the system of the regime.”
The Syrian president, Abdullah continued, is going to continue on his current path indefinitely.
“If he cannot rule Greater Syria, an Alawite enclave will be Plan B,” King Abdullah continued.
Syria is ruled largely by members of an esoteric Islamic sect, the Alawites. This minority sect, which makes up a mere 12 percent of the population, is the backbone of Assad’s regime.
King Abdullah called an Alawite breakaway the “worst case scenario,” predicting a breakup of Syria and land grabs from all directions.
At the same time as he called for an immediate political resolution to the situation in Syria, he warned against international intervention, even in the context of securing Assad’s chemical weapons.
“What scares most of us is the chemical weapons falling into rebel hands,” he said, adding that although the weapons must be secured, that goal should not be seen as an invitation for intervention.
It is a crisis that the world must react to, he added, saying he is “weary of people looking at it as a reason [for intervention].”
“The minute you cross the border with armed forces or the military, then it’s anybody’s guess what the outcome is.”
SYRIA’S CHEMICAL WEAPONS: A RISK ASSESSMENT
Syria’s chemical weapons: a risk assessment
By Shlomo Brom
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) (Tel Aviv)
August 12, 2012
Recent events in Syria have touched off a debate about Syria’s chemical weapons in a scenario of a disintegrating regime. Three principal scenarios have arisen in which chemical weapons could become a factor, either when the Syrian regime approaches its end or after its fall: (a) the regime makes a desperate attempt to use chemical weapons against opposition forces, as Saddam Hussein did in the Kurdish revolt; (b) the regime transfers the chemical weapons to Hizbullah when it senses its end is near; and (c) the chemical weapons stockpiles fall into the hands of armed rebels, including extreme groups associated with al-Qaeda. The article evaluates the plausibility of these scenarios and presents five conclusions based on this analysis.
Following the assassination of key personnel in the Syrian security establishment in a successful attack by the rebels, and the battles between opposition forces and the Syrian army in parts of Damascus and Aleppo – the two major cities whose fall would signal the fall of Assad’s regime – assessments of the impending collapse of the regime have become more prevalent. These assessments have again touched off a debate about Syria’s chemical weapons in a scenario of a disintegrating regime.
It seems that the regime recovered quickly from losing many of its senior members, and military forces, still cohesive and loyal to the regime, have managed to take advantage of their military superiority to overcome the rebels who infiltrated Damascus, which is again under almost complete control of the regime. The army is trying to replicate its performance in Aleppo, and stands good chances of doing so. Yet while chemical weapons may thus currently seem a less urgent topic, it remains important, as the regime seems incapable of suppressing the rebellion despite of its obvious superior strength. Presumably the military capabilities of the opposition forces will increase, thanks to assistance from several countries, and therefore it is quite possible that assessments about the eventual demise of the regime are valid, even if it takes significantly longer than initially expected.
Three principal scenarios have arisen in which chemical weapons could be a factor, either when the Syrian regime approaches its end or after its fall:
1. The regime makes a desperate attempt to use chemical weapons against opposition forces, as Saddam Hussein did in the Kurdish revolt.
2. The regime transfers the chemical weapons to Hizbollah when it senses its end is near.
The chemical weapons stockpiles fall into the hands of armed rebels, including extreme groups associated with al-Qaeda.
3. The scenario in which a dying regime uses chemical weapons against Israel seems implausible. It is unclear what benefit the leaders of the regime would gain; the regime is not fundamentally ideological, driven by the desire to see the destruction of Israel. It is much more interested in its own survival, both as a regime and as individuals.
In response to reports about chemical weapons in Syria, including statements by Israel’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister on the possibility of Israeli military intervention, the Syrian Foreign Ministry announced that the Syrian government would not use chemical weapons against its own people but only against foreign threats. It seems that on the one hand the Syrian regime is using the West’s discussion of the chemical weapons to clear its name as a murderous regime, and on the other hand, to deter any foreign military intervention. It also constituted Syria’s first public confirmation that it has chemical weapons.
The use of chemical weapons against the rebels would not be particularly effective, because the rebels operate like guerilla forces and the fighting occurs mostly in populated urban settings. Chemical weapons would cause primarily the deaths of unprotected civilians. Regime leaders likely understand that in addition to this type of weapon being ineffective, its use would jeopardize their own chances for survival.
The likelihood of the chemical weapons being transferred to Hizbollah hands also seems low. The Syrian regime is aware of the sensitivity of this weapon. There is no precedent for the transfer of chemical weapons from a state to a non-state organization, which is tantamount to relinquishing control of the weapon. It is unclear what advantage giving Hizbollah this weapon would confer on the regime’s leaders who are not ideologues, and even professed a willingness to make a peace with Israel. It is also highly doubtful that Hizbollah would be interested in having responsibility for chemical weapons, whose usefulness against a protected population like Israel with the ability to respond is questionable.
By contrast, the third scenario is far more plausible, assuming that the regime does in fact fall. Opposition forces are divided and not under a single command. After the fall of the regime, a period of chaos will likely ensue and various armed groups will seize control of the different military facilities and weapons manufacturing plants, as was the case in Libya. They are liable to use some of these weapons themselves and designate some for barter, and in doing so are liable also to take charge of various chemical weapons components.
The degree of risk regarding the fall of these components into the hands of rebel groups is directly correlated with the structure of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, which was built primarily to afford Syria a strategic deterrent against what the Syrians assumed were Israel’s nuclear capabilities. The arsenal comprises three types of materials: two of nerve gases – Sarin and VX, and a mustard-type gas affecting skin. The launching and delivery means are mostly airborne bombs and ballistic missiles of the Scud type. The Syrians, aware of the sensitivity of using chemical weapons and the problems of storing it, took two major measures. First, there is a geographical separation between the chemical weapons and the means of launching them, and the chemical weapons themselves are stored in facilities located far from population centers. Second, the weapon is mainly binary, meaning that in storage there are two types of chemicals, each of which alone is not particularly harmful; it is only their combination by a mixing mechanism that renders them deadly.
As has been reported, including by Israeli intelligence sources, the Syrian army has stepped up its surveillance and taken other precautionary measures in everything connected with the chemical weapons. This makes much sense, because the regime must take into account the risk that rebels could seize control of the chemical components facilities in the course of the fighting and want to use them against the regime. Therefore, it seems that the actual risk of the components falling into the hands of rebel groups is not great. For any particular group to be able to use this weapon, it would have to seize control of all the system components, dispersed in various locations, and also seize control of the complex launching system requiring operational and logistical capabilities, such as surface-to-surface missiles and airplanes. If the chemical weapon components become commodities on the black market, there is a long term danger that single-minded terrorist groups like al-Qaeda would try to acquire all the components and create self-manufacturing capabilities.
The analysis of the threats leads to several conclusions:
Despite the low probability of the first two scenarios – use of chemical weapons against Israel and transfer of the weapons to Hizbollah – Israel must send messages of deterrence, both to the Syrian regime and to Hizbollah, about the intolerable cost they would incur for taking such measures. If endowed with sufficient information, Israel might consider pinpoint attacks on such weapons transferred to Hizbollah. In this case, it is preferable that the attack be carried out on Syrian territory to reduce the probability of setting off a broader confrontation with Hizbollah.
There is no good reason to attack the chemical components storage facilities before the regime collapses. Syria has large stockpiles of chemicals, and it is doubtful that all the bunkers where the chemicals are kept and certainly the launching mechanisms could be attacked and destroyed. Partial success is liable to generate the opposite result, as the regime could conclude it is preferable to use the weaponry left at its disposal before all of it is destroyed and certainly if the attack causes environmental damage.
The United States and its allies must prepare for the possibility that it will become necessary to seize control of at least the main chemical weapons storage facilities once the regime collapses. Contrary to media assessments, it seems that the number of main facilities is small and mostly located in distant, isolated areas. Thus, securing them would not be a particularly complex operation if the Syrian army collapses. Syrian military personnel might even cooperate with these forces in order to safeguard the weapons.
Assuming that the leaders of the Syrian regime retain a modicum of responsibility, parties with which it still communicates, such as Russia, China, and the Arab League, should be tapped to transmit messages to President Assad about the expectations of the international community regarding safeguarding the chemical weapons.
It is advisable that the nations of the West establish mechanisms for use on the black weapons market in order to seize control of any chemical weapon components falling into the hands of irregular fighting forces.
THANK HEAVEN (AND ISRAEL) THAT SYRIA’S ASSAD DOESN’T HAVE NUKES
Thank Heaven (and Israel) that Syria’s Assad doesn’t have nukes
By Alan Elsner
July 30, 2012
As the death toll mounts in Syria and the country slides deeper into civil war, the world should be thankful that the Assad regime never succeeded in developing nuclear weapons – which almost happened in 2007.
The danger presented today by the presence of Syrian chemical and biological weapons is bad enough. Just think how much more dangerous the situation would have been if there were loose nukes lying around.
According to a new history of the Mossad by reporters Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Spies Against Armageddon, Israel had become suspicious that the Syrians were building a nuclear facility with North Korean help. The authors said Israel sent Mossad operatives and a special forces unit into Syria several times to take samples of soil, water and vegetation and in March 2007 managed to secure photos taken inside the facility. Who took those photos remains the most closely-guarded aspect of the operation.
According to Raviv and Melman, the images provided clear evidence that Syria was building a graphite reactor similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor which was used to build nuclear bombs. The Mossad assessment was that the reactor would become “hot” within a few months and would produce enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb within a year.
Once it went online, the reactor could not have been attacked without the danger of spreading deadly radiation throughout the region.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Washington in June 2007 and asked then-President George W. Bush to bomb the facility. Bush refused and suggested instead that Western countries should instead “expose” the Syrian reactor. This failed to satisfy Olmert and the decision was taken to destroy the reactor – which happened in a two-minute air raid on the evening of Sept. 6, 2007. [Please see dispatches on this website from September and October 2007 for more details -- Tom Gross]
Syria responded to the attack by denying it had been building a nuclear plant. However, the Syrians refused to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the site until they had cleared away the rubble and replaced the soil. Still, the inspectors were not fooled and found enough evidence to convince them that the structure had contained a North Korean-style reactor.
The IAEA said in a release in June 2011 that the destroyed building “was very likely” a nuclear reactor. “The Syrian Government was given ample time by the Agency to cooperate fully concerning the Dair Alzour site, but did not do so. Nevertheless, we had obtained enough information to draw a conclusion,” IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said.
This, of course, was not the first time Israel had saved the Middle East and the world from a dangerous nuclear program. In 1981, Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirek reactor. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait nine years later, he did not have a nuclear weapon in his arsenal to deter the United States and its allies who acted to reverse that act of aggression.
The Iraqi and Syrian operations are examples of Israel braving international condemnation to defend its vital security interests. But as the Syrian situation proves today, Israel did the entire world a huge favor in both cases.
ANOTHER LEAK FROM THE OBAMA WHITE HOUSE
Exclusive: Obama authorizes secret U.S. support for Syrian rebels
By Mark Hosenball
August 2, 2012
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, U.S. sources familiar with the matter said.
Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence “finding,” broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad.
This and other developments signal a shift toward growing, albeit still circumscribed, support for Assad’s armed opponents - a shift that intensified following last month’s failure of the U.N. Security Council to agree on tougher sanctions against the Damascus government.
The White House is for now apparently stopping short of giving the rebels lethal weapons, even as some U.S. allies do just that.
But U.S. and European officials have said that there have been noticeable improvements in the coherence and effectiveness of Syrian rebel groups in the past few weeks. That represents a significant change in assessments of the rebels by Western officials, who previously characterized Assad’s opponents as a disorganized, almost chaotic, rabble.
Precisely when Obama signed the secret intelligence authorization, an action not previously reported, could not be determined.
The full extent of clandestine support that agencies like the CIA might be providing also is unclear.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment.
A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.
Last week, Reuters reported that, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey had established a secret base near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to Assad’s opponents.
This “nerve center” is in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence.
Turkey’s moderate Islamist government has been demanding Assad’s departure with growing vehemence. Turkish authorities are said by current and former U.S. government officials to be increasingly involved in providing Syrian rebels with training and possibly equipment.
European government sources said wealthy families in Saudi Arabia and Qatar were providing significant financing to the rebels. Senior officials of the Saudi and Qatari governments have publicly called for Assad’s departure.
On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the Free Syrian Army had obtained nearly two dozen surface-to-air missiles, weapons that could be used against Assad’s helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Syrian government armed forces have employed such air power more extensively in recent days.
NBC said the shoulder-fired missiles, also known as MANPADs, had been delivered to the rebels via Turkey.
On Wednesday, however, Bassam al-Dada, a political adviser to the Free Syrian Army, denied the NBC report, telling the Arabic-language TV network Al-Arabiya that the group had “not obtained any such weapons at all.” U.S. government sources said they could not confirm the MANPADs deliveries, but could not rule them out either.
Current and former U.S. and European officials previously said that weapons supplies, which were being organized and financed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, were largely limited to guns and a limited number of anti-tank weapons, such as bazookas.
Indications are that U.S. agencies have not been involved in providing weapons to Assad’s opponents. In order to do so, Obama would have to approve a supplement, known as a “memorandum of notification, to his initial broad intelligence finding.
Further such memoranda would have to be signed by Obama to authorize other specific clandestine operations to support Syrian rebels.
Reuters first reported last week that the White House had crafted a directive authorizing greater U.S. covert assistance to Syrian rebels. It was unclear at that time whether Obama had signed it.
Separately from the president’s secret order, the Obama administration has stated publicly that it is providing some backing for Assad’s opponents.
The State Department said on Wednesday the U.S. government had set aside a total of $25 million for “non-lethal” assistance to the Syrian opposition. A U.S. official said that was mostly for communications equipment, including encrypted radios.
The State Department also says the United States has set aside $64 million in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people, including contributions to the World Food Program, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other aid agencies.
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury confirmed it had granted authorization to the Syrian Support Group, Washington representative of one of the most active rebel factions, the Free Syrian Army, to conduct financial transactions on the rebel group’s behalf. The authorization was first reported on Friday by Al-Monitor, a Middle East news and commentary website.
Last year, when rebels began organizing themselves to challenge the rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Obama also signed an initial “finding” broadly authorizing secret U.S. backing for them. But the president moved cautiously in authorizing specific measures to support them.
Some U.S. lawmakers, such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have criticized Obama for moving too slowly to assist the rebels and have suggested the U.S. government become directly involved in arming Assad’s opponents.
Other lawmakers have suggested caution, saying too little is known about the many rebel groups.
Recent news reports from the region have suggested that the influence and numbers of Islamist militants, some of them connected to al Qaeda or its affiliates, have been growing among Assad’s opponents.
U.S. and European officials say that, so far, intelligence agencies do not believe the militants’ role in the anti-Assad opposition is dominant.
While U.S. and allied government experts believe that the Syrian rebels have been making some progress against Assad’s forces lately, most believe the conflict is nowhere near resolution, and could go on for years.
SYRIA HAS NOT BEEN AMONG THE MAIN NEWS ITEMS IN RUSSIA
Syria is different through Russian eyes
By Andrei Nekrasov
July 31, 2012
It is normal that news headlines differ from country to country, but the western world might be interested to know that Syria has not been among the main news items in Russia. If there is a report on an event that is all but impossible to ignore, such as the massacre in Tremseh on July 12 it is like this one from news2.ru: “Syrian insurgents have been instructed to kill as many people as possible.”
The Russian word boyeviki, used to describe the rebel fighters, is less neutral than “insurgents” and is just one step away from bandits or terrorists. It passed from slang into the mass media during the war in Chechnya in the 1990s as a way of branding the Chechen separatist fighters. It is also worth noting in the report cited above the use of the words “instructed to kill”. They are intended to hint clearly that the opposition are acting on the orders of some invisible masters.
The report, which was on prime time TV, featured Anastassia Popova, a young and charismatic reporter. She provided “evidence” of the rebels killing innocent people in Tremseh, while claiming that the majority of those killed by the army were armed fighters and deserters. The reporter also claimed that the UN authorities were hampering her crew because of its country of origin.
Russia’s government is stubbornly supporting Bashar al-Assad and, true to Soviet-era traditions, it is unashamedly using the media it controls to justify its policy. Vladimir Putin’s control of information is not absolute. The internet has so far been almost completely free. However, the truth is Mr Putin does not need to exert control over public opinion on Syria.
Most people in Russia see the fighting there as a proxy war between their country and the west. While the humanitarian crisis receives little attention, the diplomacy is the focus of regular and detailed reports. The “struggle for peace” of foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s UN mission, against “aggressive western powers bent on force”, are what we mostly hear about in reports on Syria.
The government encourages this proxy war narrative, as it has a vested interest in portraying itself as the defender of a nation’s geopolitical position against the west’s perceived global expansion. While many of Mr Putin’s other policies are increasingly under attack, most Russians share the divisive world view that he projects. Even the independent internet-based media’s “objective” reporting tends to present Mr Assad’s version first and as fully legitimate. That is not a result of any direct pressure from the government.
When it comes to reporting on domestic political issues, such as the government’s handling of natural disasters or freedom of assembly, the same media outlets are much less patient with the government’s interpretation of events. But with Syria, geopolitics take precedence over objectivity. Many abroad may wonder at Russian stubbornness in the face of the near certainty of Mr Assad’s demise. But this geopolitical nationalism has cultural roots. And Mr Putin of course is himself a product of this culture, not just its manipulator – although to be clear he is a master of that technique too, using it to maintain his power.
More and more, the Russian people are told that vlast – a word that does not really have an English equivalent, incorporating authority and political power with a hint of brutal force – comes from God. Attacking it, for whatever reason, is both sinful and criminal.
On the face of it the Pussy Riot case, a political show trial in which three young women are being effectively persecuted for blasphemy, is unconnected to Syria. The trio stands accused of singing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral. It is another example of the bid to reintroduce autocratic ideology. The trial’s message is simple: an insult to the leader is an insult to God.
Two weeks ago Abdel Basset Sayda, the head of the Syrian National Council, accurately described his movement as a “revolution” when he came to Moscow to urge officials to stop supporting Syria’s regime. He was, inadvertently, highlighting the very reason for Mr Putin’s support. Mr Sayda may have wanted to inspire Russian leaders with a vision of democracy and justice that invoked the end of the cold war. Instead, those same leaders found themselves imagining how they might end up in Mr Assad’s shoes.