Russia in Syria in 2012 — Echoes of Britain in Suez in 1956?

Posted February 2nd, 2012 at 5:33 am (UTC+0)
20 comments

Cartoon shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin trying to use his UN Security Council veto to reanimate Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Under protection of the Free Syrian Army in Kafranbel, near the Turkish border, demonstrators held this sign in a protest January 27 against what they called Russia’s backing of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuters

Is Russia living its Suez moment?
In October, 1956, France, Britain and Israel attacked Egypt in an attempt to reverse President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The United States and the Soviet Union strong armed the three attacking nations into pulling back.
Today, that conflict is widely seen as the bitter, historical turning point when Britons realized they were no longer a world power.

It is also seen as the dawn of Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, a region distant from its pre-Cold War sphere of influence.

Now, half a century later in Syria, we may be witnessing the sun setting on Moscow’s sway over the Arab world. For Russians, it is a painful reminder of Russia’s reduced reach in the world.

Last year, Moscow stubbornly clung to it Soviet legacy allies in the Arab world. One by one, they wobbled, and eventually fell: Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and, finally, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. Now the Kremlin seems to making a last stand with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad.

Russia is threatening to veto a United Nations resolution calling for a political transition in Damascus. If Mr. Assad goes, the Kremlin seems to reason, Russia has nothing to gain, and a lot to lose.

Moscow’s 40-year alliance with Assad family has concrete benefits today: $4 billion in arms contracts for future delivery, $20 billion in gas investments, and Tartus naval station, Russia’s last military base outside the former Soviet Union.

On March 4, Russians vote for president. For the next month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the leading candidate, has no interest in alienating a key electoral constituency, Russia’s military-industrial complex. (The real foreign policy votegetter is to keep the beaches of Egypt, Tunisia, Israel and Turkey open for the millions of Russian vacationers who now flee there every winter.)

On the world stage, Mr. Putin is determined not to be pushed around by the West. In Moscow, officials talk darkly about “the Libya scenario” and “the Libya precedent.”

Russian officials still see geopolitics through the old simplistic, Soviet zero sum lens. The fall of Gadhafi was a victory for Washington, and a setback for Moscow.

It rarely occurs to Russian journalists to talk to real Libyans, and ask them what they want. It rarely occurs to Russian diplomats that if they keep complaining about Libya’s revolution, Russian businessmen are going to stand at the back of the line in Tripoli.
(Two days after this Russia Watch was posted, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued this statement: “After 14:00 Moscow time on February 5, an unauthorized rally under anti-Russian slogans was staged in front of the Russian embassy in Tripoli to protest against Russia’s position while voting a resolution on Syria at the United Nations Security Council. The protesters, numbering several dozen, climbed onto the roof of the embassy building, damaged surveillance cameras and hauled down the Russian flag.” On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a second statement: “That gross violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was committed by persons, who misinterpreted Russia’s principled position on Syria at the UN Security Council.”)

Part of this stems from a deep skepticism in Russia today about revolution. After two traumatic revolutions in the 20th century, this allergy is shared in Russia by both the rulers and the ruled.

Demonstrators step on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's poster during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Homs January 27, 2012. Photo: Reuters

But there is also a disdain for Arab public opinion.
In Libya and Syria, Moscow has taken stands opposing the will of the Arab League. Of course, Russia, the world’s largest oil producer, has no need to tiptoe around the big oil producers that dominate the Arab League.

But, now Arab newspapers and internet sites are peppered with a novelty: anti-Russian cartoons and protest images coming from Syria and from Syrian exiles. On Wednesday, the Facebook page of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suffered a spam attack that experts attributed to Syrian opposition hackers.

In Moscow, Russia’s plummeting stock in the Arab world is a non-issue. Beneath this lack of concern may be the unspoken understanding that Moscow is wrapping up its big power role in the region.

The half century that started with Suez, may end with Syria.

One of several anti-Russian banners held by demonstrators who gathered in Kafranbel after Friday prayers on Jan. 20 to protest what they saw as Russia’s backing for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuters

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

20 responses to “Russia in Syria in 2012 — Echoes of Britain in Suez in 1956?”

  1. […] on SyriaNew York TimesUN Security Council Narrows Differences on Syria ResolutionBusinessWeekBritain in Suez in 1956 = Russia in Syria in 2012?Voice of America (blog)Reuters -BBC News -CBS Newsall 7,199 news […]

  2. […] on SyriaNew York TimesUN Security Council Narrows Differences on Syria ResolutionBusinessWeekBritain in Suez in 1956 = Russia in Syria in 2012?Voice of America (blog)Reuters -BBC News -CBS Newsall 7,199 news […]

  3. […] Francisco ChronicleDiplomats at UN Haggle With Russia Toward a Compromise on SyriaNew York TimesBritain in Suez in 1956 = Russia in Syria in 2012?Voice of America (blog)BusinessWeek -BBC News -Reutersall 7,202 news articles » […]

  4. […] Britain in Suez in 1956 = Russia in Syria in 2012? – Voice of America (blog) Posted in Arab Revolution | Tags: america, arbiter, arbiter-online, malaysia-star, poster-during, president, russian-prime, step-on-russian, syria /* […]

  5. […] Russia says will veto “unacceptable” Syria resolution Russia Watch: Britain in Suez in 1956 = Russia in Syria in 2012? The New York Times: Russia’s Bad Bet on Syria Asia Times: Fighting over Syria at the […]

  6. squid says:

    Come on guys make another pic, this one is getting old.

  7. squid says:

    I remember the spin it was a great dance.

  8. MG says:

    All we need now is for America too to withdraw its attempts to exert influence in the middle-east and there me real hope for the region!

  9. WhatWindsMeUp says:

    small reminder: Russians can attack to. Sam one has to finish the “controlled chaos” theory in practice. After Georgia war, this time will be a little bit bigger KaBOOM! What we need, just, anyone without mandate starting to bomb Syria or Iran. And is no chance, that Europe Countries (NATO) will hit Russia back.

  10. Gennady says:

    I pray for understanding of Syrian people for not judging all of the Russian by adventurous policy of the regime imposed.
    At the time when dying-out population of Russia ponders over the question of “to be or not to be”,
    when its population is dying-out
    and vast expanses of Russia are unpopulated and under populated,
    Russian industry, science and education are destroyed,
    2 million children of Russia are in orphanages and face the prospect of becoming drug addicts, prostitute, homeless or be put in prison after they have left the orphanage,
    the man who has high jacked Russia
    seeks for influences in overseas territory, such as Syria.
    It’s reckless, to say the least.
    Why should ordinary Russians be bothered about internal events in Syria?

    • WhatWindsMeUp says:

      Gennady, replace word “Russia” to “USA”. In most cases won`t be a big deference. The people are not blind any more. To be demonized by “western media” is not a stigma. USA has to clean up own back yard and stop stealing money and truth from own people, and stop scaring them. Anyway, kaboom is coming, sooner or later. The good news is: USA would not succeed to do this in silence. It will be blood and retaliation.

    • theremnantman says:

      @ Gennady. So verily and so obviously true. Can’t agree more. And all this covered above relates to the whole territory dubbed as “The Russian Federation”

  11. Observer says:

    It look like all the arrows shooting at one target Russia, We understand Russia try to save the last base they have but, peoples of Syria don’t agree . It seem to be Russia make them same mistake again as they did with Libya, Egypt, ..It would be smarter If Russia start to build new relationships than try to save the one that inevitable collapse. we think Russia needs a better government to regain their image of a powerful nation like before ,every time peoples make comparison they always say the US and Russia…now a day they say the US and the Chinese…
    that is reality that many Russian feel hard to swallow .

  12. Gennady says:

    To Observer:

    I completely agree with you, Sir (Madame).

    The man who unilaterally proclaimed himself in charge of Russia
    raped people of Russia into his favored Stalinist ideology as he doesn’t know any other.
    His approach to Syria is the same as to his own people:
    disregard, contempt, enforcement into submission, denial of human rights and justice.
    He and his cronies choose what priorities should be imposed upon Russia as well as upon Syria. As always the wrong.
    Not priorities of survival but of imperial glory. They ignore the reality of globalized world, the importance of scientific and technological excellence in case if one wants to look smarter.

  13. Observer says:

    it’s fair to say that Russia still cursed by Communism as Large numbers of Russian still thinking back the days that they have works must be done every day, have food stamps every month and they don’t have to think about how to get rich, how to save enough monies to buy a car..etc ..every thing have to follow State guides so they was accustom to that ways of life and they can’t change that by them self without the help of the State. As for the state they need to change them self too so those people get lost when they are let loose. As for The government, the authoritarian custom still firmly in the system as they try to keep social in order the old ways afraid that peoples will spin out of control or loosing power or even say copying the West is not good for Russia.On the other hand Majority of Russian want to escape the old orbit flying to a new horizon with lot of option to choose they want self determine of what to do with their lives , to be some body ,to travel the world explore things, to learn from abroad, all that options will be impossible if Russia’s political and Economical stepping on spot. The world need Russia to be powerful on one side and the US on the other side to keep the balance for world. This a reason why Russia need a Progressive with new thinking government, and need it now .

  14. alzaripov says:

    No one can’t throw Russia at the byways of history if it doesn’t make it itself. The nowday’s home and foreing policy of authoritarian regime says that this process began long before. The unscrupulous politicians’ speeches on Poklonaya gora showed this tendency increases. At such time one can only make a quotation ” …we live in arse-paralysingly drear times”.

  15. Ahmad says:

    It’s interesting why Russia keeps supporting Syria and why it will never let it go:
    http://foreignpolicynews.org/2012/02/02/putins-gamble-with-al-assad/

  16. Ben says:

    Russian international policy was always the instrument and addition to its interior one(may be the Pavel policy was the exception).That is why it was so often short-sighted,remind the Saddam Husseyn help to the last minute. I think the Syrian`s support is the pre-election demonstration of the “sovereign” force.

  17. alzaripov says:

    The russian tsars’ policy can be determined by the following words: capture more land and enslave more peoples. They enslaved their own people, of course. In their time all peoples were guided by this motto. By and by the agressive spirit calmed down and peoples started to cultivate their god given gardens. Some time or other all peoples must go through it.
    The general line of modern history is the replacement of the autheritarian regimes by the true democracy. There are a lot of examples at present. But the russian leaders always maintain these regimes like the obsessionists. They justify it by the necessity to protect the international law as the minister of foreign affairs of R.F. declared touching on a situation in Syria.
    If the protaction of the “international law” leads to death of people and stregthen the regime of personal power perhaps it is not true law or it is not true interpretation of it.
    The protection of authoritarian regimes, still existing to the deep regret, is the desperate attempt of russian leaders to protect such regime in R.F. “Birds of a feather flock together”.
    The russian foreign policy was always the extention of its domestic policy or vice versa it will be the same. “Two wrongs do not make a right”.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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