As Tensions Rise With U.S., Russia Teams Up With Iran To Help Assad

The U.S. is actively trying to block new Russian military aid to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow sees its best alternative is to team up with Tehran.

Russian MiG-29 fighter jets
Russian MiG-29 fighter jets
Olga Kuznetsova, Maxim Yusin and Ivan Safronov


MOSCOW â€" A Russian government source has told Kommersant that Moscow is working actively with Iran to keep Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in power.

The Kremlin source said that cooperation between Moscow and Tehran has been continuing for some time "to keep the Assad regime afloat," in the face of several setbacks recently for Damascus.

The report comes amid Western media reports that Russia is sending troops to Syria to fight alongside Assad forces, which the US says would lead to an escalation of the conflict and a direct clash with the international coalition fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. (On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the Kremlin confirmed that some of its military experts are indeed in Syria.)

The Russian presence in Syria threatens to deepen the rift between Moscow and the West, and has led to the U.S. taking the unprecedented step of asking Greece to close its airspace to any Russian aircraft carrying aid to Syria.

The deputy head of Russia's Federation Council, Vladimir Jabbarov insisted that even if Greece closes its airspace, Russia would still find new flight routes to Syria. Still, this would be difficult to carry through because it would mean going through Turkey or Iraq. Turkey is a NATO member and opposes Assad, while Iraq is closely linked to the US as part of an international coalition fighting ISIS.

Boots on the ground

For this reason, Russia considers Iran as the best alternative in its efforts to help Assad because it has long-established supply routes â€" mostly through parts of Iraqi territory â€" to reach Damascus.

Putin and Assad in Moscow in 2005 â€" Photo:

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has again come out in support of Damascus, stating that the responsibility for the bloodshed in Syria lies with those countries that have called for Assad's overthrow.

Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has said any media reports "are false" if they imply that Moscow has agreed to a deal with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to remove the Syrian President. She even revealed details of how Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone conversation that Moscow always had, and would continue, to provide military support to Damascus.

“Russia has never concealed that it supplies military equipment to the Syrian authorities to combat terrorism,” Zakharova said.

A senior Russian government source told Kommersant that information of a Russian troop presence in Syria is a “gross exaggeration,” but he added the caveat that “a number of military experts does not constitute a strike force,” confirming that Russia is contributing nonetheless with advisors and other personnel.

Meanwhile, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Moscow and Damascus enjoy a "working relationship" and that there is nothing wrong with Russia cooperating with the Syrian authorities.

News of Russian troops in Syria would only increase the level of distrust between Moscow and the West, and reflects fundamental differences in the approaches for resolving the Syrian crisis. Washington sees Assad as the cause of the rise of ISIS, while Moscow says that if he is overthrown, Islamists would seize Damascus, and most of the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned Western countries about meddlesome foreign policy, "especially in regions of the Muslim world."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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