Washington, Moscow, and the Invisible Tip of the Syrian Iceberg

The obvious truth is that Syria is in deep crisis.  What remains unclear is the vast area encompassing the answer to some important questions involving the regime that ruled Syria for decades.  For instance, what are its strengths (if any) and its weaknesses?  What about the background of the motivation and the actions of the international enemies and supporters of President Bashar Assad?

Maybe today Syria would be a much quieter country if not for the events that took place on February 3, 1982.  It was at the early dawn when the Islamic fundamentalists, based in the city of Hama, proclaimed the outbreak of an open insurrection against the regime of President Hafez Assad, the father of the current Syrian leader.  By the end of that day, 90 activists of the ruling Baath Party were murdered.

President Assad decided to take the matter into his own hands by ordering the tank and the artillery detachments of his Army to "pacify" the rebellious city.  This order unleashed a true bloodbath in Hama, which, along with the bulk of the Islamic insurgents, took away the lives of thousands of innocent people.  The psychological trauma and the deep wounds inflicted by the unbelievable cruelty of the regime never healed during the decades that followed.  This massacre  transcended the death of Hafez Assad and impacted the rule of his son.

It is the long accumulated hatred that currently plays the role of the emotional fuel behind the decision of many people to take part in the present-day massive anti-government demonstrations.

Undoubtedly, the very existence of a secular and authoritarian dictatorship in Syria continues to bring to the streets a motley crowd of protesters that includes the swollen ranks of the religiously motivated opposition, together with all shades of secular enemies of the regime -- a situation remarkably similar to the events in Egypt that toppled President Mubarak's government.

The Islamic fundamentalist component of the protest movement is also involved in violent actions against the forces of the regime that already had brought about serious casualties on the government side of the divide.

Another important fact that is systematically ignored is the reluctance of the substantial Christian minority of Syria to see the old regime gone in keeping with the preferences of the American State Department.

This reluctance is based not on an excessive loyalty toward Bashar Assad, but rather on the fear of the establishment of an Islamo-totalitarian dictatorship perceived by the majority of Syrian Christians as the most likely alternative to the Baathist rule.  

This attitude is powerfully reinforced by the developments in Egypt in general, and by the triumph of the Islamic fundamentalists in the elections that recently took place there.

Given that Syria plays a very important role in the Middle Eastern strategy of Russia, so far it is Moscow that plays the main role, along with Iran, in the survival of the Baathist regime.

What escapes the attention of the American analysts and commentators is the difference between the effectiveness of the actions of Russia and the complete lack of consistent strategy developed by the Obama administration with regard to the Middle East.

When the anti-government demonstrations at Tahrir Square intensified, the administration was quick enough to disengage itself as soon as possible from President Mubarak.

There were no attempts made to identify and to establish contacts with the secular components of the Egyptian opposition.  There was no effort designed to elaborate a powerful message making abundantly clear that the United States will cancel every bit of financial support to any Egyptian government that will discriminate against women and minorities, that will violate basic human rights, and that will ignore its responsibilities with regard to the provisions of the peace treaty with Israel.

As far as the Syrian crisis is concerned, all the Department of State has come up with so far is the appeal to President Bashar Assad to step down.  Such a recommendation leaves plenty of room for the question of how many lives will be destroyed in the ensuing chaos, and of who will take over the country given the long tradition of a belligerent Syrian branch of  Islamic fundamentalism.

The actions of Moscow in regard to the Syrian crisis are completely different from the American policies simply because they are part of a consistent strategy designed to provide stability to the country that had remained the only ally of Moscow in the Arab world.

One of the main reasons for the Russian support of  President Assad's regime could easily be explained with the military aspects of the cooperation between both countries going back to the Soviet era.  Today, the Syrian port of Tartus is the only base of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea.

There is more to it, though -- the Russian support for Syria opens additional opportunities for a growing role of Moscow in the upcoming stages of the Iran-related developments.

The confusion marking the outright American abandonment of Mubarak's regime, combined with the lack of any attempt to attract its secular opposition, produced the disastrous results of the Egyptian elections.  Unlike American confusion, Moscow made it abundantly clear that its support of Assad is far from unconditional. 

On the one hand, the Russians have established contacts with the secular opposition to Assad, while at the same time they are pressuring the Syrian president to try to reach an understanding at least with some categories of his numerous enemies.

Due to its growing influence over the Syrian Christian community, the Russian Orthodox Church plays an active role in Moscow's strategy designed to provide stability amidst the turmoil.  The recent visit to Damascus of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Cyril, was an important step in this direction.

What in many ways remained hidden is the fact that similarly to the case with Afghanistan, the interests of the United States and Russia in Syria coincide in one very important way: neither Washington nor Moscow would be happy to see the replacement of the Assad regime with an Islamo-totalitarian dictatorship.  Whether the realization of this fact will have some impact on an important dimension of the future of the American-Russian relations creates a situation the outcome of which remains to be seen.

Georgy Gounev, Ph.D. teaches at two colleges in Southern California and  is the author of the book The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon. The Islamization of Europe and its Impact on the American-Russian Relations, Foreign Policy Challenges LLC, Laguna Hills, 2011.