Why Russia Won't Back Down On The Standoff In Syria

Analysis: Longstanding diplomatic and business ties with Damascus, and memories of the West's about-face on Libya are among the key reasons Russia won't give in on a UN resolution on Syria. But from Moscow, there's also Vladimir

Russian President Medvedev introducing Bashar al-Assad to Foreign Minister Lavrov in Damascus in May 2010 (
Russian President Medvedev introducing Bashar al-Assad to Foreign Minister Lavrov in Damascus in May 2010 (
Maksim Yusin

MOSCOW - Even before Morocco officially proposed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it was clear that Russia, which has veto power in the Security Council, would stand in the way.

Moscow had already expressed its disagreement with language in the resolution that places the blame for recent violence squarely on al-Assad's shoulders, and calls for his removal from power. Moscow is also worried that if the resolution against Syria, a major Russian ally, is adopted by the Security Council, the West will see it as a green light for international forces to intervene, just as happened last year in Libya. Russia had compromised with the West on Libya by agreeing to abstain from the vote on Libya, but it was not happy about the NATO bombing that followed.

Things are likely to be different with Syria. The Kremlin is not about to give in to pressure from the West, particularly in light of upcoming presidential elections.

The West pulled out the heavy hitters for Tuesday's Security Council meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and British Foreign Minister William Hague all converged in New York. The Arab League's General Secretary Nabil El-Araby represented the Arab point of view. But Moscow made its point clearly by not sending someone of the same level to take part in the discussions: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continued his tour of Asia and Oceania uninterrupted, rather than veering off to New York.

"The Security Council must act so as to make it clear to the Syrian regime that the international community considers its acts a threat to peace and security," Clinton said the day before the proposal was officially introduced. Washington did not hide its annoyance that Clinton was not able to reach Lavrov and to discuss the upcoming vote with him.

According to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, Clinton's "phone was ringing constantly," for discussions with colleagues from various different countries, but the Russian Foreign Secretary remained unreachable. "The Secretary, frankly, has been trying to get Foreign Minister Lavrov on the phone for about 24 hours," Nuland said, noting that Clinton had no trouble speaking with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov was informed of Clinton's wish to speak with him, but the timing conflicted with his meetings with Australian officials. "Russian diplomats do not cancel previously scheduled meetings," Lavrov explained, adding that he was ready to speak with Secretary of State Clinton "at the slightest opportunity."

Regardless, the chances that the two diplomats can find common ground on the Syrian problem is essentially zero. From Australia, Lavrov commented on the Syrian opposition's refusal to negotiate with the al-Assad government, talks that Russia had offered to organize. "If the opposition refuses to sit at the same negotiating table with the regime, then what are the alternatives? To bomb them? We have already been there, and the Security Council will not ever give its blessing to a bombing campaign - I guarantee it."

Six reasons for "No"

Foreign politicians and diplomats are asking themselves why Russia agreed not to block the Libya resolution last year, but now is ready to go head-to-head with the West in defense of Bashar al-Assad. But experts reached in Russia gave Kommersant at least six concrete reasons why Russia is not likely to give in.

1. Syria is one of Russia's most important allies in the Arab world. If Moscow abandons Damascus in this critical moment, then the message it will be sending to allies around the world is that one cannot rely on the Kremlin.

2. Damascus is one of Moscow's most important trading partners, particularly in military technology. The military contracts that were signed in the past years were worth about $4 billion. In 2010 alone, Syria acquired about $700 million worth of Russian arms. Moscow recently approved the sale of 36 military planes to Damascus - for a sum of $550 million. The total Russian investment in the Syrian economy is around $20 million. One of the largest projects is a gas processing plant managed by a Russian company. Moscow is not convinced that the opposition in Syria would continue this partnership if it comes into power.

3. Russia's only military base located outside of the former Soviet Union is in the Syrian port city of Tartus. The opposition in Syria has given no indication of whether or not they would allow Moscow to keep the base if they are successful in overthrowing Assad.

4. Russia is wary of the uncompromising Syrian opposition. Its leaders are oriented towards the Persian Gulf monarchs, towards Turkey and towards the West, but not in the least towards Moscow. In addition, among Bashar al Assad's opponents, Islamists have a relatively strong position, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. If they come to power in Syria, which is home to a relatively large number of Christians and Shiites, there is a real risk that the country will be splintered based on religion.

5. The Russian leadership clearly doesn't believe the West's promises that the resolution on Syria is not a steps towards a military intervention. Moscow thinks that the U.S. and European Union are being sly, and Moscow has not forgotten the Libyan precedent: NATO bombing of Muammar Gaddafi's forces began just days after the UN Libya resolution was adopted in March.

6. As important as international relations are, Russian internal politics also plays a major role in this affair. A month before the presidential elections, Vladimir Putin does not want to appear weak to either voters or his opponents, either by giving in to the West's demands or by betraying a traditional ally. Russians are still distressed about Moscow's abstention from the vote on the Libya resolution, which facilitated Gaddafi's overthrown. And the Kremlin truly does not want Assad to follow in Gaddafi's footsteps... at least not before the elections on March 4.

Read the original article in Russian.

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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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