Thousands of pro-Assad supporters praised Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and foreign intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov as they visited Damascus on Wednesday. At the same time, about a 100 miles away, Syrian military forces indiscriminately bombed the city of Homs. The Russian envoy’s presence was perceived as confirming the Kremlin’s support of its sole Middle Eastern ally, following a joint veto of UN with China heavily criticized internationally but celebrated and defended in the Iranian and Chinese press.
A month ago, a Russian aircraft carrier docked in Tartus, Syria, one of two remaining naval bases, to reportedly deliver ammunition for the military of Bashar al-Assad. The February 5 veto was not Russia’s first – of all the vetoes ever cast at the Security Council, half came from Moscow, a third from the Washington – but it is only China’s eighth in 33 years. Two of them have dealt with Syria, despite a lack of Chinese investments or military presence, leading some to speculate the Panda is letting the Bear lead in the Syrian ballroom.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi proposed to his UN counterpart a joint observer mission Wednesday, two weeks after Arab League observers left Syria, citing increased violence. The Arab world has nearly completely condemned the Russian-Chinese veto and continued courtship of Assad. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has called for an international meeting to coordinate regime change, following statements two weeks ago detailing almost 10,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, giving Ankara a new aggressive backbeat.
All roads lead to Damascus, it seems. Domestic Russian (and American and Turkish) electioneering and unrest undoubtedly play into international (in)action. After a year of large public protests and legal limitations on nominees, ballots will be counted March 4 for aspirants to the Kremlin. Contenders to Vladimir Putin’s presidency agreed with the ex-KGB agent’s “no bull in a china shop” decision to back the Syrian regime – with the exception of Mikhail Prokhorov. While acknowledging the $20 billion Russian business interests in Syria and blasting Qatari and Kuwaiti coverage of the repression, the mineral magnate and darkhorse presidential candidate Prokhorov echoed NATO allies calls for Assad to step down.
Perhaps fearing a spread of popular uprising through the Kremlin, Putin followed the Security Council veto by warning of an international “cult of violence” with dangerous implications. What was a no-fly zone over Libya morphed into aerial bombardment, Western arming of rebels, and a brutal Saharan regicide. To avoid a similar conclusion, Putin’s envoy Lavrov said Syrian vice president Farouk al-Sharaa will contact the opposition (some of which are based in Turkey) to begin peace talks.
But as gruesome footage filters out of Syria, net activists assail Russian cyberspace, the Pentagon assess the possibility of an assault, and domestic campaigns ignite, can the Turkish Wolf, the Russian Bear, the American Eagle, and the Chinese Panda dance in the Damascus china shop?
This post was originally published in the biweekly bulletin of SISMEC