Sunday, June 23, 2013

Guess who's coming to dinner

To an outsider, one of the odder sights in international relations is the steadfast support from Russia for the Alawite regime in Syria. As the government over a lot of unhappy Muslims, few of whom will sympathize with Alawite Islam, it seems self-destructive.

It probably is, but taking the long view, there could  be a reason for it.

Lately the Russian foreign ministry found a new reason to disdain the rebels: cannibalism. The Voice of Russia reports the ministry as saying:

 The recent resolution looks weird, particularly in the light of video footages of late where a Syrian rebel commander was caught in an act of cannibalism. Vladimir Isayev of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, reports:
"The recent resolution could affect preparations for the Geneva II conference. It should have been preceded by another one which would require sponsors to the Syrian opposition to discontinue their supply of weapons and money until the opposition got rid of savages who practice cannibalism. Such behavior is barbaric beyond reason."
Russia has not always been offended by Syrian cannibalism:
In a December 1973 address to the National Assembly, Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass stated that he had awarded one soldier the Medal of the Republic for killing 28 Israeli prisoners with an axe, decapitating three of them and eating the flesh of one of his victims.
It is only stating the obvious that, viewed from the perspective of foreign policy, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia never really happened. Russian policy -- aggressive, expansionist and unproductive -- has hardly changed over the past 300 years. Syria is as good an example as any.

There are no obvious reasons for Russia to be interested in Syria, but about 150 years ago the tsarist empire declared itself the protector of the holy places in Palestine, where Greek Orthodox fanatics were squabbling murderously with Latin Christian and Muslim fanatics. The Russian Orthodox church sought supremacy over other Orthodox sects, in part for religious reasons, in part in support of the state's drive for influence in the Balkans and Asia Minor, part of Russia's yearning for a warm-water seaport.

All Russia got out of that was the Crimean War. Nevertheless, having formed a habit of supporting Syria, it kept at it.

(Syria in those days encompassed all the Arab regions from south of Asia Minor to somewhere in Arabia and east to somewhere in Mesopotamia. There was no separate Lebanon or Palestine in most peoples' consciousness.)

The Bolsheviks had few opportunities to meddle in Syria. Russia was almost prostrate, and France was busy establishing itself as the protector of Latin Christian interests there. (300,000 Syrians, more or less, died in the process but no one thought it a humanitarian crisis worth bothering about.) The Syrians themselves were inclined to ally with the Nazis as the most effective antagonists of the French.

After World War II, Russia followed a traditional course, supporting Syria, although hardly coherently. It was the first to recognize the state of Israel, but did not lose interest in Syria, despite the anti-French postcolonialist regimes' decidedly fascist tone. The suicidally radical Syrian regimes were soon replaced by a slightly more temperate group of cannibals.

With Syria as a launching pad, the USSR sought to increase its influence throughout southwest Asia and northeast Africa, concentrating, for some reason, on places without oil.

Perhaps it was just force of habit.

Anyway, it is difficult to see what Russia got in exchange for its very expensive sponsorship. Various medieval regimes (Iraq, Libya) fell but not to be replaced with any version of communism, except in Yemen, the least valuable prize in the region.

In 1973, having lost its toehold in Egypt, at least partly because the Egyptian regime distrusted the Syrian regime, Russia found itself backing Syria in the Yom Kippur War. It had to face off the United States to do it, and possibly it saw that as necessary in order to preserve the antiAmerican Syrian and other regimes in the area.

This was very expensive in arms and prestige and got Russia, at best, least-bad rewards.

If it meant allying itself with cannibal savages, well, in those days that was a price the Kremlin was ready to pay.

It is difficult to see why Russia supports Syria today, unless it is fellow-feeling of one fascist regime for another.

As for the United States, which has never had much influence in Syria (as a government; American missionaries had a lot to do with fostering Syrian nationalist aspirations), it seems about to follow the tsarists into the Syrian quagmire. If our new allies prove to be cannibals, well, it wouldn't be the first time.


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