Why Russia sticks by al-Assad
July 23rd, 2012
12:44 PM ET

Why Russia sticks by al-Assad

By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN

Anna Borshchevskaya is the assistant director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

As Syrian atrocities have escalated, so too has U.S. frustration with Russian intransigence.  On July 19, after Russia and China vetoed sanctions against the al-Assad regime, the White House called their decision “deplorable and regrettable.”

There are many reasons for Russian intransigence. With the Mediterranean port of Tartus, Syria hosts Russia’s only military base outside the confines of the former Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a realist – he clearly believes that Russia gains more by sticking with Bashar al-Assad than gambling on the regime that will follow.

Yet while Putin is no democrat, he isn’t completely detached from public opinion either. The problem is that he will face little criticism at home for a simple reason: while the Russian public is aware of the violence in Syria, it remains largely ignorant of the al-Assad regime’s brutality.

When the Russian press reports the latest Syria news, it by and large lacks any real detail and analysis, instead parroting the official Kremlin line that the Syrians oppose outside intervention. The Western press, in contrast, teems not only with first-hand reports, but also interviews that offer a broad range of perspectives, discussion and debate.

For a start, the Western media has been reporting about interviews with survivors and activists, covering the debate about which specific groups Assad’s army targeted in these massacres, and publishing a myriad of opinions.

Take, for example, the alleged July 12 massacre in the village of Tremseh. “People had their throats slit,” one resident told Agence France Presse, which also reported graffitied slogans such as “Bashar is president or we will burn down the country!” London’s Guardian quoted an opposition activist, who explained: “it appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Tremseh after its rebel defenders pulled out and started killing the people...Every family in the town seems to have members killed.” The Telegraph added important context that most recent massacres have all involved Sunni villages dominated by the Alawite minority. The violence, it seems, isn’t simply indiscriminate, but rather appears to be more like ethnic cleansing.

Compare this to Russian reports. Most say responsibility is unclear. Russian agencies shouldn’t lack sources – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserts that Syria hosts as many as 100,000 Russian citizens. But Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s newspaper of record, reported as fact Lavrov’s conviction that the “lion’s share” of the Syrian public supported al-Assad, and accused the State Department of lacking precision.

Meanwhile, even as the Western press has reported extensively on the shabiha (“Ghosts”), a pro-al-Assad vigilante group complicit in the worst abuses, Russia’s Vesti.ru, website of a popular television station, infused its July 15 reporting on the shabiha with moral equivalency, suggesting that those slain by the group were armed insurgents.

Press freedom seems important here. Reporters Without Borders ranks Russia as 142 out of 179 countries in terms of press freedom in its latest global rankings. Because some independent news permeates Russia online, the Kremlin is moving toward a China-style “internet wall.” Earlier this month, for example, the Russian parliament passed a bill allowing broad internet censorship. Putin is further limiting press freedom with a new law to require non-governmental organizations who receive funding from non-Russian sources to register as “foreign agents,” raising the specter of independent journalists being branded as foreign spies.

The Obama administration has made a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations a cornerstone of their foreign policy, but the Russians haven’t played along. Alas, so long as Putin faces no domestic pressure, he has no incentive to be on the correct side of history in Syria.  If the Russian people – and Russian investors – understood the true nature of Assad, they might be less willing to play along. Media freedom reverberates, and whether on Syria, Georgia, or Iran, sometimes it becomes a pre-requisite for winning true cooperation.

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Topics: Russia • Syria • United States

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soundoff (281 Responses)
  1. George

    Russian president Putin has a lot of support on this page. Very curious indeed.
    If Russia is siding with Assad to preserve their military port on the Mediterrean Sea then they have taken a big gamble because when Assad is removed, the next ruling faction, whatever it is, will not be pleased with Russia and probably want it removed.
    The US is finally 'getting' this. Go with what is right and just and you never lose. We have been working in concert with other countries during the Arab Spring. There are problems, of course. The US had problems, still do, but democracy is the best form of government. Russia has yet to achieve a true democracy, but there is hope.

    July 25, 2012 at 8:21 am | Reply
    • Andrey

      "The US is finally 'getting' this. Go with what is right and just and you never lose." – do you mean aligning with al Qaeda and playing with terrorists again – like with Mujahidin and Taliban in 80-s?
      Bring more human sacrifices to your Democracy goddess, prove that you are her most devoted servant: and she will grant you the World Domination!

      July 25, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  2. KEVIN

    Why is Israel not mentioned in this article? You know they have their greedy little hands in this. Oh, I forgot if we mention Israel in any way we will just feed into their theology of being the victims of the world. LOL (I think)

    July 25, 2012 at 8:22 am | Reply
    • nina

      If you did "think" you might not say stupid things.
      Are you seriously not aware that we can all see that you are hate mongering?

      July 25, 2012 at 10:16 am | Reply
      • Rahi1

        And we know you have been baptised by Netanyahoo. Zionist's friend. Have you ever thought of telling the truth to your relatives and families in your life before pasing away ? Have you ever written the truth about Zionist's actrocities in illegal settlements ? Have you ever open your freaking Lips to tell the readers about hidden Znionist's atomic bomb ? You are an angel desended from the sky to defend the activities of aparthaid and suppresson.

        July 25, 2012 at 10:50 am |
      • nina

        Give me examples that can be validated and declared reliable.
        No fair calling on allah, his profiteer, family members, friends, people living in a muslim community.
        All I see from you and your muslim friends is bluster and lies.

        July 25, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
      • Nina

        Because you have called me a bad name, I am leaving this blog. I am going to allow you and the muslim riff-raff you hang out with all day talk dirt about people who are better than you.

        July 25, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
      • Nina

        I was just kidding of course!
        I would like to understand if it is your upbringing, a specific trauma you have lived through, your religion that makes you an anti-Semite, anti-Christian, anti-Chinese, anti-Russian, anti-Hindu, anti-anything other than islam.

        July 25, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
      • Nina

        Why do so many muslims hate so much. Does it not control your whole lives?

        July 25, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  3. bing520

    This is an unsatisfactory analysis. Anna Borshchevskaya proffers no explanation why Putin chose to support Assad, not any other alternative. Putin could hedge between Assad and opposition, keeping a safe distance from both. Or he could bridge the difference between Assad & opposition to avoid bloodshed from escalating, thus making him a hero to Syrians. I'd like Borshchevskaya to explain or speculate why Putin did not try other revenue. Instead she posits Putin has to listen public opinions and public opinions are manipulated by Russian Government. If not allowed to manipulate public opinions, Putin would have to follow public opinions which would be in favor of supporting opposition. This is nonsense. All great leaders, including each and every of them in the West, influenced and directed public opinions to lead. Only mediocre leaders with no strong conviction read public opinions to make a decision. Remember how unpopular Ronald Reagan was during his first term?

    July 25, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply

    I totally agree with the Russians on this one. Neither the U.S. nor any of it's rubber-stamp allies have any business in Syria. Unfortunately, most of the ignorant fools here don't seem to be buying into that. Like I said before, you can't cure stupidity!

    July 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • Rahi1

      well said. I only wants to add that curing the stupidity requires self thinking and self assessment. Which most of the free launcher writer here on this forum lacking. These bonnie living vast land of ignorants can't see beyond their nose. Ask them the geographic of the globe and they will tell you they never been out of their born circle.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • nina

      Marine5484 – please provide
      1. How you think that even though the Syrians have asked USA for help, the USA should not be involved.
      2. your reasons for not wanting any country involved in helping Syrians.
      for the following comment you have made:
      "Neither the U.S. nor any of it's rubber-stamp allies have any business in Syria. "

      July 25, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
      • Rahi1


        You are one pathetic bigot and I don't need to feed you the knowledge to become tolerant. Your perceived enimosity against Muslims and your biased is well known here with your red neck postings. I asked you few questions Knowing well that people like you will never have answers for them even if you are born again with same mentality. Your reply is a typical of a racist and you deserve to stay in the state of ignorance. There is no evidence needed for the kind of atrocities your baptised nation is exercising for decades.There is no evidence good enough for ignorant like you to convince you that Isreal did have nuclear weapons. On a personl basis, one can easily conclude from your posting that you never have spoken the truth in your life.

        July 25, 2012 at 5:38 pm |

        Come on, nina. Anyone with half a brain would know how right I am here. Neither the U.S. nor any of it's rubber-stamp allies, and I do mean rubber-stamp since none of these bureaucrats in Europe seem to have a mind of their own, have not only no business in Syria but no right even to be there anymore than in Afghanistan!!!

        July 25, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
      • Patrick

        All those bureaucrats, what are you judging them on. Do you have anything tangible for such a judgment?

        July 25, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
      • Andrey

        How do you know Syrians asked US for help?
        What were the names of Syrians who asked US for help? Who did they communicate to and by what means? How do you know that they represent all Syrians, or at least some Syrians besides themselves?
        How many sources confirm that Syrians asked US for help? Can you name some of them?
        Did Syrians asked US to invade Syria? Did they ask to bomb Syria? Did they ask to impose economical sanctions on themselves? Did they ask to Send them money? Did they ask send them tickets to Disney Land? Did they ask to assassinate all rebel leaders? What kind of help did they ask for?
        How do you manage to preserve your trust in CNN in spite of all the evidence of it being bias, hypocrite and war-mongering?

        July 26, 2012 at 12:06 am |
      • Nina

        Andrey – chill, the USA is not in Syria – yet.
        Right now it is Muslim killing Muslim.

        July 26, 2012 at 8:35 am |
      • Nina

        Andrey – "How do you manage to preserve your trust in CNN in spite of all the evidence of it being bias, hypocrite and war-mongering?"
        Do you have any proof?
        Where is your evidence?
        Can you describe what you mean when you state that CNN is a hypocrite?
        What exactly does the term "war-mongering" mean to you?
        This previous statement of yours certainly shows your true colours:

        What US and Israel do when the Syrian Opposition (including "elements of al Qaeda") after the fall of Assad will get its hands on Syrian stockpiles of chemical or whatever weapons?

        July 24, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply

        US has built so many financial pyramids in so many ways: they have difficulty to figure them all out! I think they should invent a new level of bankruptcy: something more spectacular and with more fun! After all, that is where they are going for years and decades to come!

        July 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply

        July 26, 2012 at 8:54 am |
      • Andrey

        Nina: You made some quotes of my posts, That was quite flattering, thank you! It is a pity they were probably not the best ones: not those I was proud of myself.
        So what was you point BTW?
        Mine was that people should make an effort to think for themselves: to think about some things that CNN somehow never comes around to report....
        You need a proof of CNN being bias, that it is a hypocrite? Want to know what war-mongering means to me? Sorry, cannot help you. You either start thinking for yourself, or just keep repeating what you have been told by others. That is your choice!
        BTW: it seems that you did not answer any of my questions. Well I never expected you to. I thought you may have a problem with that because your Opinion and your Knowledge were divorced after finding that they have absolutely nothing in common! 🙂

        July 26, 2012 at 9:45 am |
      • nina

        Funny Andrey – nope I am not going to explain my rantings, you need to figure them out by yourself. In the real world Andrey, when you make a statement, you back it up with plenty of research and examples or you could be labelled an idiot.

        July 26, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
      • Andrey

        Great advice Nina: I hope you will follow it!

        July 26, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
      • nina

        How do you know its great advice?
        Was it couched as an advice or was it more of a directory?
        When would that advice be best put to action?
        What would the responses be?

        July 26, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  5. Jack

    Your a crackpot

    July 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  6. extremes

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch...remember that little boy that was sent back to russia by the adoptive parents? the guy that took him back (appears ot be bothering a woman at a ranch now), told that little boy that boys don't cry. That's patriarchy. That's wrong. I don't think they have the right guy for the job. Boys do cry. Stop trying to blunt their emotions.

    July 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  7. Jack Bissette

    Russia backs and supports all their ally's.... what a stupid question. Well.... that's CNN for you. Some of you really need to pick up a history book once in awhile. " well if the US helps Israel kill innocent Palestine people"... WHAT! Palestine has only been trying to grab Israeli land since the dawn of time. Look a map of the Kingdom of Judah.....it was all theirs. The Palestine people are nomads. I wish the US would have kept our noses out of Libya, Egypt and Syria..... cause all three of those leader's protected the christian population's. They now are being slaughtered...... thanks to Obumer and his ilk!

    July 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  8. gervais

    well,when the Russian elected Puttin ,they relected the last ditector they will have.He is buying drones to control his population.they also elected someone that would change how the world will see them too.they are evolved into something new for them.They are building their own democraty,,at least it will help them have a better life.Puttin is turning back the clock now,,,,,,,,they will have to moove into something that will have to define themself.

    i find not surprising to see China ( that has no respect what so ever for his people) and Russia no voting for saving the Syria people BUT time will see that they will understand (the syrian population) what they did.

    July 27, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • nina

      Noooooooooooooooo, not those ungodly drones.

      July 27, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  9. Gary North

    Loosing Siria means Russia will loose its infuence in the region.....www.websendsms.com

    November 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
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