Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent of the Guardian, is rather a brave man. He recently accepted the Russian government’s invitation to visit Syria and to take a carefully chaperoned tour which shows off just how well the country is now doing thanks to Russian intervention. Links to his accounts can be found here. His reports are well worth reading, and give us a better picture of what life is like there, one feels, than reports written from the comparative safety of, let us say, Beirut.
It seems that the level of violence in Syria has decreased markedly of late – after all, a couple of years ago the place was far too dangerous for journalists, though Damascus has been peaceful and outwardly normal for some time. Last autumn a conference was held in the city, sponsored by the British Syrian Society (headed by president Assad’s father-in-law). I spoke to one of the attendees, who was granted face time with Assad, and he said Damascus was quiet, apart from one (presumably unscheduled) distant detonation. But this is the regime’s narrative: everything is normal, all is quiet, nothing to see here, please move along.
Walker’s reports reveal this narrative to be fiction. There is something dreadfully wrong about Syria, which is far from normality.
First of all, huge swathes of Aleppo and other places are now deserted and in ruins, the people who used to live there either dead or forced into exile in other parts of Syria or outside it. This was always part of the regime’s plan – to engineer an “ethnic rebalancing” among Syria’s various factions, getting rid of the groups whose loyalty could not be presumed. This form of tribal cleansing is not unique to Syria. It happened in the former Yugoslavia, in Lebanon, and it has happened in numerous African countries. In all these places, the only difference is one of scale.
The second thing that Walker notes is that the Russians are everywhere. That Syria has been pacified is largely a Russian achievement, or so Russia would have us believe. Certainly, the Syrian army could not subdue the country on its own, but the achievement is not exclusively Russian, as plenty of help came from Iran and their allies Hizbollah. And yet, crucially, Walker notes that the Syrian war is not popular back home in Russia. Naturally, Mr Putin and the mullahs in Teheran are not going to abandon Mr Assad now, but Mr Assad is only safe while his backers are able to back him. Regime change in Moscow in Teheran will mean regime change in Damascus too.
Russia has a particularly poor record when it comes to upholding puppet regimes. In the 1980’s, when it became apparent that the Russians would not, as in the past, send in the tanks to crush the opposition, all the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed, and did so rapidly and by and large without much bloodshed. So, it is possible that some future Russian government may decide that Syria can be let go, just as East Germany and the other client states of the Warsaw Pact were let go. Iran, of course, is a different story, but even in this case, it is by no means certain that the current regime will last forever.
Walker’s tour of Syria was meant to be a show of Russian might, and an assertion that Syria was returning to normality. But behind the façade, and Russians know about façades, things are very different. Even so, if Syria is quiet at present, that must be welcomed by its poor people, who have been terrified by the sound of bombs for far too long.