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Authoritarians of a feather flock together? - Russia and the Assad regime

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Just a few days after the highly-criticised Russian veto at the UN Security Council, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Damascus and met with President Bashar Assad. At a time where countries, one by one, are recalling their ambassadors from Syria, this meeting was a rare sign of support for the crumbling regime. Lavrov was received with what has been described as "a hero's welcome" as thousands of Assad supporters gathered to express gratitude and greet him with both Russian and Syrian flags and blue, red and white balloons (the colors of the Russian flag). A banner with the portraits of Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin read "Thank you Russia and China".

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov came to Damascus to promote "the quick implementations of democratic reforms in Syria." Lavrov explained that it is Moscow's desire for the Arab peoples to live in "peace and agreement," he said, and while apparently turning to Assad he continued: "Every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours".

After the meeting, Lavrov told reporters that Assad stated that he is "completely committed" to ending the violence in Syria "regardless of where it may come from" and is open for dialogue with all the political actors in Syria. Lavrov even offered that Russia will sponsor talks between the regime and the opposition, which could take place either in Moscow or any other agreed-upon location. Assad himself told reporters that he is determined to cooperate with any efforts to stabilize Syria, and claimed that "Syria has complied with the Arab League plan adopted on November 2".

The reality behind the diplomatic declarations reveals a drastically different and much more pessimistic picture. The Arab League ceased all activity by its observer mission last month in light of the continuation of violence, arguing that "the Syrian regime turned to the military option (of use of force), in complete contradiction to its commitments". It is reportedly divided about any renewal.

While Assad suggested to start a dialogue with the opposition in the past, his preconditions were rejected by the opposition, making genuine dialogue impossible and hindering any chance for change. The Syrian National Council announced recently that it will not enter into a dialogue with the regime as long as Assad is head of state.

Yet the most obvious gap between these declerations and reality in Syria is the continuation of violence against civilians and protesters. At the same time when Lavrov stressed Assad commitment to ending violence, the killing in Homs persisted, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 people in 24 hours, while residents of Aleppo and other cities suffer from shortages of petrol, basic food products and medicine.

But Russia's authoritarian Putin government is itself experiencing social disquiet and fears a popular uprising like that occurring in Syria - which may explain Russia's decision to annoy both the West and the Arab League and organise the veto in the Security Council and Lavrov's visit to Damascus. Russian journalist Masha Gessen has just published an op-ed in which she apologized to Syrians and declares that the Russian government who vetoed the Security Council resolution on Syria does not represent the people of Russia. She carefully drew similarities between the social uprisings and protests in Russia and in Syria, and the difficulty in dealing with repressive regimes.

"So it is not surprising that the Russian government would refuse to back the Arab League's peace plan for Syria: Putin's identification with President Bashar al-Assad has never been stronger. And the bizarre insistence of Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, that the Security Council resolution place part of the blame for the violence in Syria with the opposition there can be read as a warning of sorts to the opposition here, in Russia."

The Russian display of support is especially striking considering other countries' recent reactions to the escalating crisis in Syria. The US closed its embassy in Damascus. France, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, Italy and Spain were quick to follow, by recalling their ambassadors for consultation. British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently stated that Assad's regime " is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime...There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally." The European Union is also said to be considering imposing sanctions against Syria's central bank and boycotting gold and valuable metals purchases from the country.

Reactions from other Arab countries have been just as determined. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, have recalled their own ambassadors from Syria as well and expelled Syrian envoys stationed in their capitals in protest over the continuation of killings in Syria. They are reportedly preparing to debate recognition of the Free Syrian Army as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

While international pressure on Syria seems to be increasing, Iran and Hezbollah are reportedly re-doubling their efforts in support of Assad's regime. Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, commenting on reports of the slaughter in Homs, claime that "We looked into those reports. Nothing happened there. The timing of those reports - just before the debate in the UN Security Council wasn't based on facts. It was an attempt to use the media. The reality in Syria today is that the regime is still in power and it has an army and a constitution. There are many people who support the regime... so the assumption that the people don't support (Assad) is not true." Like Lavrov, Nasrallah also emphasized Assad's willingness to launch a dialogue with the opposition.

Meanwhile Hezbollah's sponsor, Iran, has reportedly sent 15,000 Revolutionary Guards' soldiers from the Quds force to support Assad, and the Quds force commander, General Qassem Sulaimani, now resides in Damascus. Yet, bizarrely, Iran's foreign ministry continues to deny any Iranian involvement in Syria's internal affairs.

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