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Pure Onsense

Syria, and Russia's Perverse Politics

Scott Zuke

(August, 2012) As Americans grapple with the recent act of senseless domestic violence in Colorado, people in Syria are facing mass atrocities at the hands of their own government on a daily basis. The conflict, now increasingly referred to as a civil war, has claimed more than 19,000 lives and has illuminated the global community's lack of options for intervention.

In July, for the third time since the crisis unraveled, Russia, along with China, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have threatened non-military sanctions against President Bashir al-Assad's regime unless it took steps to implement a peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan. Meanwhile, the situation in Syria is nothing short of horrific. Security forces have gone from shelling residential areas to using heavy artillery, tanks, warplanes, and ruthless, armed gangs to systematically assault and pillage neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled across the borders into neighboring countries, with many more internally displaced. Reporters, unable to access the most embattled areas, rely on videos posted to YouTube to document the escalating violence. The clips are filled with images of corpses, distant explosions, and the lightly armed rebel forces attempting to wage a war against a Syrian army using advanced weapons technology bought from Russia.

It is not surprising that Russia has continually sided with Assad, given that Syria is one of Russia's most important and lucrative arms buyers, but their alliance goes deeper than that. In terms of geopolitics, Syria is to Russia what Israel is to the United States--a lone ally and strategic foothold in the Middle East. There is also the issue of upholding national sovereignty as an unimpeachable law to prevent countries from intervening in others' internal affairs, a guiding principle championed by China that has caught on among today's modern authoritarian regimes in Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. Russia and China abstained from a Security Council vote that paved the way for the NATO-led operation against Libya that led to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, and they are determined not to allow this to become standard operating procedure.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand why Russia has continued to make a spectacle of its resistance to Western efforts to end the crisis when it is so obviously sacrificing any semblance of moral high ground to do so. The Putin regime has repeatedly called the opposition fighters "terrorists," despite the fact that it is Assad's forces who are systematically slaughtering children and employing artillery fire against civilian neighborhoods. The power between the two sides is completely asymmetrical, but the Russian delegation continues to portray rebel forces as the aggressors spurring a civil revolt, against the will of the people.

A plausible explanation was recently offered by David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova, writing for The American Interest, who suggest that Putin's foreign policy is directly tied into his domestic political agenda and his strategy for maintaining public support for his authoritarian regime. "To reproduce personalized power with global aspirations," they write, "the Kremlin has to contain America and undermine the American order wherever possible—in Russia’s own neighborhood or in other parts of the world." Russia's successful diplomatic blockade against America and the Western world's efforts in the Security Council may have been carried out mainly for the purpose of demonstrating to the Russian people that it could still significantly alter the course of international policy. Nevermind the plight of the Syrian people, who after holding on for over a year have given up hoping for the UN to come to an agreement on how to help end the conflict.

"I hate losing," said the protagonist in last year’s film, Moneyball. "I hate losing even more than I wanna win." Mr. Putin's twisted and reprehensible version would read: "I want my opponents to lose even more than I want to win." It is a sign of the absurd state of politics in Russia that scoring points against the US by preventing international intervention against mass atrocity is meant to bolster Putin's image. Mere absurdity, however, would actually be better than the actual path down which the newly-elected president is taking his country.

In the span of only a few months, Putin has engineered an all-out meltdown of civil and political liberties for the Russian people. Through completely legal procedures in the legislature, which his party controls, he has backed new laws that assault the freedoms of speech and expression, freedom of assembly, freedom on the internet, and freedom of the press. It began with a law that would apply fines to protestors and protest organizers who attend unsanctioned demonstrations that equal or exceed the average Russian citizen's annual salary. It will hold organizers responsible for any violence that occurs, a stinging liability since it is frequently pro-government thugs who initiate aggression.

More recently, another law was passed that will force many human rights NGOs to register as "foreign agents"--a label intended to evoke Soviet-era fears of covert interference from US spies--and will threaten them with fines and closure if they fail to regularly submit detailed reports on their finances. The law was hastily written and passed, and had to be amended at the last minute when it was learned that the Russian Orthodox Church would classify as a "foreign agent" under the text because it accepts donations from abroad.

And finally, another law was quickly passed through the Duma to establish a blacklist of Russian-language websites, ostensibly to crack down on such illegal content as child pornography. Rights groups, including a special advisory panel created by and for the office of the Russian president, objected that the wording was too vague, and left the door wide open to allow for censorship of opposing political views.

Putin has taken up a strong posture against the US since resuming his presidency, vowing to retaliate against any plans to infringe on Russia's sovereignty. So far, though, every punch he's thrown has landed on either his own people, or on Syrians already facing annihilation from their own government.

Follow Scott on Twitter at @smzuke.

Read other article by Scott Zuke