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On Syria’s Shattered Sovereignty

• By Sirwan Kajjo •  April 18, 2018 


Hundreds of supporters of Syria’s embattled president Bashar Assad took to the streets of the capital Damascus over the weekend to protest airstrikes carried out by the United States, Britain and France against Syrian military bases and chemical facilities. The strikes came as a response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces against civilians in the rebel-held town of Douma, northeast of Damascus.

While it is not the first attack on Syria by foreign nations during the country’s seven-year civil war, this one has particularly angered Assad’s local supporters. Their outrage was visible during Saturday protests as well as on social media.

Mihrac Ural

Photo of Iranian and other flags at a pro-regime rally taken at the Umayyad Square in  Damascus in mid-April. (Courtesy)

In addition to Syrian regime flag, the protesters waved Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah flags. Some flags of al-Amal Movement, another pro-regime Shiite Lebanese group, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a group that advocates for greater Syria, were also raised by the angry protestors.

Nothing is unusual about all this. These nations and groups have been staunch backers of the Syrian regime since the eruption of the war in 2011. But what makes these demonstrations almost comical is the fact that they were meant to show popular disapproval for a foreign intervention that violated Syria’s sovereignty.

The irony here is that the very people that were criticizing the West for intervening in Syria and “violating its sovereignty” were the ones proudly waving Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah flags.

Growing Russian and Iranian backing

Embolden by major military gains over the past two years with growing Russian and Iranian backing, Assad and his supporters are more positive than ever regarding the future of the regime. Especially recapturing major rebel strongholds in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus suburbs, the Syrian regime now feels that it is finally able to reclaim its so-called national sovereignty. And when it realized that this could be challenged by the U.S.-led strikes, the regime and its propaganda machine moved quickly to mobilize their popular base.

At this stage of the conflict, Assad’s supporters can be divided into two categories. A delusional one that wouldn’t buy the narrative that their leader is responsible for the killing of more than 500,000 people in the past seven years. And this category includes urban Alawites, wealthy Christian and Sunni communities in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.

The other category gradually has limited itself to embracing the notion that Assad is the only option they have at the table; the only national leader that they can actually protect them from radical Sunnis who would eliminate them as soon as they assume power in Damascus. These supporters are mostly rural Alawites, impoverished Christians and a small minority among Kurds.

Redefining the idea of sovereignty

The truth of the matter is that Assad and his regime have redefined the idea of sovereignty for his followers. Over the years, Bashar – and his late father Hafez who ruled the country from 1971 until his death in 2000 –  constantly and systematically has indoctrinated his people with a primitive form. The prescription is clear and simple: when the regime is directly threatened, then it’s a threat to the country’s sovereignty. Otherwise, it’s for the regime to tailor an alternative definition for its relations with foreign allies such as Russia and Iran that have unduly intervened in Syria matters, including many domestic issues.

A counter argument could be the overused narrative that Russia and Iran have been intervening in Syria at the request of a government whose state is a recognized member in the UN. But it has become clear that Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria is beyond a normal partnership between allies.

Russia, for example, is operating in Syria as if it’s one of its former Soviet satellite states. Moscow’s two permanent bases in Syria, Tartus Naval Base and Hmeimin Airbase, have the sites of several political meetings between Russian officials and Syrian opposition leaders without the slightest knowledge of the Syrian regime – much less its approval. Russia’s free movement in Syria has particularly increased after Moscow’s official involvement in the civil war in 2015.

Iran, on the other hand, has maintained a growing military presence in Syria since 2011. Tehran has practically turned Syrian battlefields into a proving ground for its new military officers in training. During the battle to retake eastern Aleppo from rebel fighters, it was Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah militants who took the lead in dislodging the rebels from the strategic city. That military victory allowed Iranian forces to operate freely and separately in other areas – without much involvement from Syrian regime troops. Moreover, in some areas in and around Damascus Iranian forces are the sole protectors of Shiite holy sites. And Syrian forces reportedly have no access to some of these areas.

Interference in Syria

Iran also has deployed thousands of Shiite militiamen from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere to combat alongside Iranian and Syrian forces, but it is only Tehran that has been commanding their operations across Syrian territory.

Regime supporters, however, don’t view all of this as to undermining the national sovereignty of their country. Quite the opposite, they overtly encourage these two countries to continue their interference in Syria.

In a most recent instance, Assad supporters showed almost zero interest in opposing the invasion of the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin by Turkey, which ironically happens to be a major opponent of Assad and his regime. To them, Turkey’s invasion wasn’t an existential threat to Damascus and thus it didn’t amount to a violation of their sovereignty.

The Assad regime has successfully induced its supporters by a set of hollow slogans about nationalism and sovereignty that have become an integral part of the Syrian psyche. These have only exacerbated inter-communal relationships in an already polarized society.

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