The Russians recently announced the presence of their troops in Syria, inaugurating a new stage of the regional war taking place in Syria. This announcement had made it clear that the war has moved from a proxy stage into a stage of direct international confrontation.
de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, had just recently announced the formation of four committees negotiate a political solution for Syria. A number of Syrian dissidents voiced their support and hope for such a plan. Needless to say, this Russian intervention has served to destroy the illusion put forth by both de Mistura’s plan, as it is obvious this Russian involvement will serve to continue the war on the ground thereby further fracturing Syria to be ruled by many little dictators, starting with Assad’s Baathism and extending beyond ISIS’s delusions of a state.
Many Syrian opposition members were quick to call the Russian intervention an ‘occupation’, while government loyalists stated that the intervention was legitimate, as the government had asked Russia to join the fight against ISIS.
As the Russian warplanes began their missions and started bombing, Syrians took to social media and the streets to express how they felt towards this new military and political development.
At first, most were incredulous at the news, especially as it was revealed that the first targets of the Russian strikes were not in fact ISIS, but members of the Syrian armed opposition, who had been fighting against both the government and ISIS.
Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian leftist dissident, wrote in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, an article entitled “Occupation Demands Resistance” in which he explained the context for declaring Russia an occupier, drawing on history, U.N. resolutions on decolonization, and the present day reality in Syria.
Many others wrote in a similar vein, including creative dissidents May Skaf, Louise Abdelkarim, and Fares Alhelou.
On the other side of the country, the reaction could not have been more different as many of the loyalists were lauding this intervention. Other than participating in demonstrations in support of this intervention, loyalists on Facebook cheered on the attacks, which resulted in 40 deaths and the injuries of dozens of civilians in Rastan and Talbiseh, small towns in Homs.
This clear divide between loyalist and dissident sparked an intense debate on social media, with dissidents and supporters of the opposition accusing loyalists of being collaborators who support the occupation of their country. Loyalists retorted that the legitimate authority, that is the government, requested the intervention of Russia thereby legitimizing the operations.
Others still, pointed out the hypocrisy of some opposition supporters, asking why this intervention was not okay when they had asked for other kinds of intervention. Social Psychologist Azzam Amin, wrote on his facebook: “Some of you opposition members were the first to call for foreign intervention, so why is now the foreign intervention called “Russian occupation” and why do you call us traitors? And let’s say you are right, and that the opposition requesting foreign intervention is treasonous, does treason justify betrayal?”
The Opposition Under Fire!
The Damascus-based opposition, composed of groups such as the National Coordination Body for Democracy Change (NCB) and Building the Syrian State (BSS) have been embarrassed by this direct military intervention, as they put forth anti-intervention stances, while stressing the importance of Syrian sovereignty, but have welcomed this Russian intervention with open arms. The statements made by Salih Muslim, deputy coordinator of the NCB and Hasan Abdulazim, President of the NCB, both in support of Russian intervention, have worked to strip these groups of any lingering legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the National Coalition announced its rejection of de Mistura’s plan and has condemned Russian intervention as being against the interests of the Syrian people.
To Fight ISIS or to support Assad?
Moscow has justified its intervention in Syria on the basis that they are fighting ISIS. Putin, in his last speech at the UN General Assembly, emphasized that the Syrian Arab Army is the only force on the ground fighting ISIS. The goal of this speech was to portray Assad and his regime as the leaders of the War on Terror, and to portray them as partners in the fight against terrorism.
However, the position of the Russians was made clear when their first targets were Syrian armed opposition groups in Homs and Hama. In response to this, a local opposition activist Manhal Barish wrote: “The Russian places shelled the headquarters of the Tajammo’ Al’Azzeh in the Hama suburbs, and they are a faction of the FSA and whose prowess relied on anti-tank TOW missiles. They’re neither ISIS nor are they Al-Qaeda, nor are they an extremist faction. What message were they trying to send with this, and to whom?”
The reality is that this intervention has worked to reverse the recent losses of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA); the Syrian armed opposition, for a while, stood at the edge of the coastal region following the Battle of Idlib. Moscow is aware that the Syrian Arab Army has no desire to fight and has lost its morale after four years of revolution and war.
Moscow has come to preserve its interests in Syria, which are represented by the “useful” parts of Syria: Damascus and the Syrian coast, which is home to Russia’s only naval facility in the Mediterranean. The encroachment of the opposition to both of these areas frightened Moscow; its interests were suddenly in danger. Thus, Moscow intervened to protect its interests and to establish these areas as international and regional red lines.
Through the bogeyman of ISIS, Russia has come to Syria to confirm it as a pawn in its chess game against the West, a game that dates back to the Cold War and most recently events in Ukraine, which have plunged parts of the country into what can be described as civil war.
The military entry of Russia into Syria has also added a new dimension to the many different conflicts playing out on Syria’s soil. The Russian Orthodox Church declared the intervention a “holy war”, making the intervention a crusade. This development can only serve to increase sectarianism in Syria, prolonging the existing conflict. Furthermore, it confirms Syria’s new status as a land of holy wars, where many come to eke out their religio-ideological differences. From Hezbollah, to ISIS to the Russian Orthodox Church, all have adopted religious language to describe their holy fight against the non-believers.
In response, activists in Kafranbel, a revolutionary hamlet in Northern Syria, raised banners during their demonstrations that read: “To the Russian Church! Your soldiers are here in Syria to kill innocents. What ‘Holy War’?”
However, the majority of the Syrian opposition is in agreement that the resistance against oppression must continue, and that there must be a response to this new Russian aggression, be it military or nonmilitary.
In Paris, a group of Syrian and Ukrainian activists joined together to condemn Russian crimes in Syria and the Ukraine, which coincided with Putin’s visit. They held up banners in Arabic, Ukrainian, and French to reject the intervention in their countries.
The group also issued a statement demanding that the French government hold the Russian government accountable for Russia’s various war crimes and oppressions. They said: “We do not accept cooperation with dictators. Neither Putin Nor Assad!”
In Kafranbel, the people of the town marched against Russian intervention, carrying banners and posters mocking the regimes and satirizing the ongoings. Many of their signs and banners featured condemnations of the inability of the world to act, including condemnations of the international coalition meant to fight ISIS.
Militarily and politically, most activists are calling on Syrians to increase the level of resistance against Assad and Putin. Many, like Abdulhakim Qatifan, called on the armed opposition groups to unite in the face of this new oppression. Others, like Walid al-Bunni, called for the formation of a new group of revolutionary Syrians to liberate the country and restore its sovereignty while building an inclusive state, for all Syrians. Michel Kilo wrote of the need to start an armed resistance against Russia, but qualified his statement by saying that Russia needs to adhere to Geneva I and Security Council Resolution 2118.
Others still drew comparisons between Syria and Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, which left them wondering if that is perhaps the goal of the West: to draw Russia into a quagmire, drain itself entirely… all at the expense of the Syrian people.