What Vladimir Putin Learned From The Arab Spring

March 14, 2016
A banner carried by protesters in Kafranbel, Idlib province, Syria, a reference to UN resolutions on Syria vetoed by Russia and China | Raed Fares, banner maker

Five years ago the world was glued to Twitter, Internet news agencies, and live television, where one could watch the “old world order” fall apart in real time. On December 19, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi’s vegetable cart, his livelihood, was seized by Tunisian police. He lit himself on fire, perhaps the only method of protest which he felt was loud enough, and the uprising that followed would ring the Middle East in flame.

The flames were not set by the protesters, but rather by the dictatorships which could not tolerate their collective voice.

The power elite had plenty to fear. In the blink of an eye, the regional status quo collapsed. By January 16, less than a month after Bouazizi inadvertently became a household name across the planet, the Tunisian government had fallen. On February 11, after only 18 days of protests in Cairo, Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak resigned. Just four days later on February 15 protests erupted in Benghazi, Libya. Fearing the masses, Gaddafi turned his soldiers — and his air force — against the crowds, resulting in a NATO intervention to stop the mass homicide on March 19. Seven months later Gaddafi was dead and the NATO mission was over. Protests at the Pearl Roundabout monument in Manama, Bahrain, started on February 14, and exactly one month later were put down by an invasion force from Saudi Arabia — but the protesting continues nearly every night. On January 27 protests began in Yemen, on June 3 President Ali Abdullah Saleh was injured in an assassination attempt, and by February 27, 2012 — 12 months to the day after protests started — Saleh resigned.

And then, there is Syria. In February, 2011, a group of school children were arrested — and beaten — after sprawling some graffiti on the side of their school in Daraa. Their message, “the people want the fall of the regime,” was popularized in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, as protests began in Daraa against the arrest of the students, the people were only calling for reforms.

For a while, anyway. In March, protests began to spread throughout Syria. They started small, were hit hard by police. First, Assad tear gassed the crowds and made arrests. Then his police shot protesters and brutally beat people in the street. Kidnappings and disappearances became common place. But instead of stamping out the spark of protest the flames only spread. By the summer, every corner of Syria — every city and town, nearly every major neighborhood in fact, even the “Assad strongholds” of Lattakia, Tartous, Aleppo and Damascus — were host to widespread protest every single Friday, and often beyond.

A turning point for the crisis (or, perhaps more accurately, a point of no return, was July 22, the largest protest Syria had seen yet. Unlike Egypt’s famous Tahrir Square, however, this protest may have drawn millions — but not all to one place.  In at least two cities, Hama and Deir Ez Zor, more than half a million people are estimated to have  joined the throngs (the latter is now an ISIS stronghold, a reminder that they are an occupying force in Syria).

The theme of the protest was even more problematic for Assad. Protesters deliberately held protests, alongside Kurdish groups, in Kurdish neighborhoods, a sign that the Assad regime’s propaganda about this crisis being sectarian in nature was not a viewpoint shared by the actual opposition. By the end of the day, many Syria watchers — including this author — believed that the protest movement was too large, and too much blood had been spilled, to ever conceive of a scenario where the status quo was restored.

The protest movement had become massive, but this is was no revolution, no civil war. The violence was exclusively one-sided for months. It was not until the summer, when Assad’s soldiers turned on their own by shooting any soldiers who would not kill civilians, that the first defectors from the Syrian military began to fight back. The result was the first stage of the war we know now — the fighting spread, Assad’s ruthlessness ramped up. Only seven days after the July 22 protest, the “Free Syrian Army” was officially formed out of a ragtag and initially leaderless band of defectors. Launched in order to protect civilians and end the fighting, soon they began to fight back and even hold territory.


The rest, I suppose, is history. By February Assad was using every weapon in his arsenal (except the airforce) to flatten on of Syria’s oldest and most important cities — Homs. Soon after, having survived the onslaught, the Free Syrian Army was now picking up members in droves, the Syrian regime was losing ground, the Syrian airforce began to devastate the civilian populace from the air, and the country was sprinting toward the abyss that we see it in today.

But misconceptions still remain about even this period of time. The protest movement officially started on March 15, 2011, the Free Syrian Army was formed on July 29 of that year, and yet ISIS was not established until the spring of 2013, more than two years after the crisis began, and the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra was unheard of before January 2012 and did not really gain strength until late summer of the same year — a year and a half after Assad killed the first protesters. The radicalism that has come to define this conflict in the Western media was a product of years of violence that was inflicted upon a peaceful civilian populace by the Syrian regime.

And as the conflict worsened, so too did the involvement of Moscow.

Russia’s Duplicitous Diplomacy

From most headlines written about this conflict recently, you might get the mistaken impression that Russia only joined the conflict in Syria in the last six months. The reality is that perhaps no single force has had a more powerful impact on the Syrian conflict than Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But it didn’t start that way.

I think most Russian experts would agree that Putin was wearily watching events unfold in the Middle East in 2011. But Putin did not immediately stake a position regarding the events — instead, he presented himself as the deal maker who could help bring the crisis to a close. Russia did not, for instance, use its veto power to stop the NATO campaign to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Likely, Putin was well aware that Gaddafi’s use of full-fledged military force to cluster bomb protests into the ground had  instantaneously transformed him into an international leper, and Russia could not save the Libyan tyrant without looking like a monster.

Putin was far more involved in Syria, however, but first turned to diplomacy to steer events.

Assad, unlike Gaddafi, more skillfully employed a “boiling frog” strategy, where he so gradually ramped up violence over the course of more than a year that the urgency which the world felt regarding Libya was absent in Syria. Assad likely also benefited by being second; the world, the American public, and US President Barack Obama in particular, were weary of entering in another war in the Middle East, and were even less willing to intervene until the war in Libya had subsided.

Vladimir Putin masterfully exploited this dynamic. In 2011, as the violence intensified, Russia encouraged the Arab League to help negotiate a ceasefire which could open the door for a political solution. But the first priority was to ensure that the United Nations and NATO didn’t beat him to the punch. The Kremlin’s first priority was to avoid any UN resolutions which, if violated, could later be used as an indication that the international community was in any way sanctioning military intervention. Once given that time, Russia argued that, as Assad’s most powerful ally, they would be in a position to negotiate a settlement without triggering a broader war — as long as the crisis was free from outside interference.

The Kremlin did not seem intransigent, as they said that they were not married to the idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stay. That seems to have convinced the international community to wait so long to intervene that all of the best windows to do so had passed.

How did the Kremlin accomplish this? In October of 2011 Russia first used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to block a resolution that blamed Assad for the violence. In November the Kremlin applauded a plan put forth by the Arab League that would see a ceasefire, a withdrawal of Assad’s military from his cities, and eventually free and open elections. The deal was praised by many across the globe, and yet as Assad was giving a speech about how he was accepting the deal and withdrawing his tanks, videos posted to opposition networks showed huge convoys of Syrian Arab Army troops and armored vehicles deploying in Homs. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that the peace deal was jeopardized by “extremists” who were fighting against the regime. This was long before ISIS or other Islamist groups were formed. Assad said that he had withdrawn his troops from every city but had begun a new operation to fight terrorism, seemingly echoing the words of the Kremlin. While the Syrian opposition held meetings in Moscow, Assad’s army was deploying to nearly every city in the country, and Lavrov said that it was the West that was encouraging the opposition to not negotiate with Assad.

Amazingly, this incident did not convince the world that Russia could not be trusted. The same scenario was repeated multiple times over the next few years.

In 2013 I published a detailed account of how at every step of the way Russia twisted the diplomatic process to keep Assad in power and to keep an intervention-weary world trusting that Russia was the only world power that could fix the problem. I wrote the piece because once again Russia was trying to convince the world that it was the only power capable of fixing Syria’s problems. Assad had used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, and Russia was trying to defuse the bomb that could finally topple its ally. I argued at the time that a Russian peace plan for Syria was two years too late, that the new Russian plan would be broken, that Assad would exploit it, the death toll would continue to skyrocket, terrorist groups would grow in power, and nothing would get better in Syria — things would get worse. All of those things have come to pass.

Russia’s Direct Military Support for Assad Started As It Pled for Diplomatic Solutions

Officially, Russian airstrikes in Syria started at the end of September 2015. However, Russia has been the main arms dealer in Syria since long before that.

In early 2012 Assad had been incapable of restoring control to any corner of his country. A protest movement now had a presence in every town and city, and an insurgency was picking up speed. Soon, Assad unleashed (nearly) the only weapon he had not utilized to date — his air force. Nearly as soon as Syria began to use its air power, however, international military experts began to point out that thanks to international sanctions it should be impossible for Assad to keep his birds in the sky. Soon, even if the rebels did not find a way to shoot down any of Assad’s aircraft (they did) Assad would run out of jet fuel, replacement parts, and even bombs and bullets. But no later than July 2012 Russia began supplying Syria with attack helicopters.  Despite the fact that by mid summer his regime was, by many accounts, close to collapse, it soon became clear that Assad was completely dependent on Iran and Russia to keep his regime afloat.

Human rights activists and transnationalists had long argued that the world should stop Bashar al Assad from committing his horrible crimes. But it is at this point in 2012 that realists should have recognized that the Assad regime had no real support or power in Syria– it was being artificially propped up by air power, by foreign assistance, and by military fortresses with walls just too strong for the besieging rebels to breach. Soon, Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps members invaded Syria, further evidence that Assad’s very existence was nothing more than an artifact of foreign intervention. Syria had become an inverted pyramid, with the opposition at the top, the regime at the bottom, and nothing but anti-Western imperialism and Western indifference providing support beams to make sure the system did not topple.

But the question that many have overlooked is the “why” — why did Russia work so hard to ensure Assad’s survival?


Bombing The Very Idea Of Revolution Into Dust

I started this discussion with a short history of the development of the Arab Spring revolutions, largely because our understanding of these events is now heavily influence by what has unfolded since Mouhamad Bouazizi’s famous suicide.  Five years later, with the Middle East in turmoil, it is easy to forget the sheer power of the pro-democracy movements. It’s even easier to forget that they were “pro-democracy” at all.

It’s also easy for even this commentator to remember a time before Russia’s war in the Donbass, the annexation of Crimea, its bully tactics in Eastern Europe, and its endless broken promises in Syria.

The 2011 Arab protest movement came about one year before the highly-problematic election of Vladimir Putin to another term as president, and they came less than a year before the election of the December 2011 Russian State Duma elections which are widely considered to have been rigged. At the time that protests were sweeping the world, Vladimir Putin clearly had the intention of moving away from an open democratic society. The Arab Spring could not have come at a worse time for him.

But Syria’s protest movement also came less than two years after truly massive protests were triggered in Iran in June of 2009. That revolution had been heavily suppressed, but protests continued in Iran throughout 2009, 2010, and even in February 2011. There was a very real possibility that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt was directly inspired by Iran’s Green Movement, and that the (initial) successes of the pro-democracy movements there could topple Assad, or even retrigger protests in Iran where it all started.

This scenario could, in the eyes of many observers, result in the overthrow of Russia’s two main allies in the Middle East. Since Putin was already growing a reputation for supporting nations that were opposed to the West, this would have been a disaster for the Kremlin  should it come to pass. And this geopolitical fact has been seized upon by the Russian government, but also by the anti-interventionists in the West who began to spin a narrative that the Arab Spring had more to do with the State Department than the state of civil society in countries run by dictators.

What has been more ignored, however, is that not only was Russia increasingly supporting dictatorship across the world, it was moving toward totalitarian dictatorship itself. The backbone of the Putin regime is certainly not economic growth or prosperity, nor is it in the ushering in of a time of peace since Putin’s rule in Moscow has been marked by uncertainty and war — in Georgia, the North Caucasus, and now Ukraine.

No — the Putin regime has been defined by defiance, reinforced by repression, and Putin’s triumph has been in tyranny. The very idea that the Arab Spring could succeed is an existential threat, not to Russia of course, but to those who would rule it for their own enrichment.

It was no surprise to Syria watchers, then, when Russia began its trade wars against Ukraine and other soon-to-be-EU-associates in the summer of 2013. It is no surprise that when Ukraine was the next chapter of a pro-democracy uprising Russia gave refuge to Ukraine’s ousted president, annexed Crimea, and invaded Donetsk and Lugansk.

But a successful dictator can never sleep. When Syrian rebels appeared to be closer than ever to toppling Assad last summer, it was time to crush the rebels with airstrikes. When their backs were broken and Assad looked like he had finally won, a ceasefire was allowed to take hold, and now violence is increasing once again in Ukraine. At home, the already-darkened state of democracy in Russia has been nearly completely snuffed out since the uprising in Ukraine. The media landscape has been completely transformed. The state has moved against independent news agencies like Ekho Moskvy and TV Rain, while the Kremlin now completely dictates the editorial lines at those news agencies that it already funded. Journalists have been beaten, arrested, harassed and threatened. Opposition leaders have been shot, poisoned, detained, tried, convicted, their homes and offices searched, and their names tarnished by the pro-Kremlin media.

A study of the timeline of the events which started in 2010 in Tunisia (or 2009 in Iran) clearly shows a strong relationship with what has transpired inside Russia in the years since. Those who ignore this correlation also usually miss the most basic reality of Vladimir Putin. He is nothing more than a repressive, power hungry dictator who will stop at nothing to ensure that the very idea of democracy is crushed, no matter the cost.

The basic misunderstanding of this seemingly-obvious conclusion has dire consequences. Russia is the world’s largest nuclear power, and while its military is a shadow of its Soviet legacy a revanchist regime in Moscow has more than enough military muscle to accomplish many of its goals. One of the few checks on Russian aggression — or on the domestic policies of any state — is the political consequences for its actions. Sanctions have had a serious impact on the economy of Russia, and yet Putin’s popularity has soared in large part because he has discredited the very concept of democracy while simultaneously working to crush those who dissent — at home, in Ukraine, in Syria, and beyond. Russia has used the events that have transpired since the Arab uprisings to ensure that his power is not challenged. If war is not an option, and Putin is seemingly immune from political consequences, how can he be stopped if his aggression finds a new target?

Just moments before publishing this article, Vladimir Putin made the announcement that Russia will be withdrawing their main forces from Syria after a job well-done:

“The mission, assigned to the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces, has been accomplished as a whole. Therefore I am ordering the defense minister, from tomorrow, to begin the withdrawal of the main part of our military deployment from the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu added that the Russian Air Force had succeeded in killing more than two thousand “bandits from Russia,” cutting supplies to “terrorists,” and “stopping the main route of oil product supplies to Turkey from Syria.” All these claims are suspect, but they also are partially true. Russia has not killed thousands of terrorists, and certainly has not killed “bandits from Russia” in any quantitative way, but they have killed thousands of civilians and Western-backed rebels. They have not disrupted terrorist oil supplies to or from Turkey, though they have bombed grain silos and water treatment plants to make it look like they were targeting ISIS oil supplies. They have not primarily bombed ISIS, but their bombs have driven even more civilians across the border into Turkey and beyond.

But Russia has accomplished what they wanted. For now, the Assad regime is in power, the Western-backed rebels are broken, and Russia has, for the moment, avoided the scenario where pro-democracy activists could gain control. Mission accomplished.

In the April 2016 cover story of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has interviewed the soon-to-be-former President of the United States about “The Obama Doctrine,” Barack Obama reflects on (and defends) his controversial foreign policy. We will be addressing several of the claims made by President Obama in future articles, but the overall tone of his interviews suggest that he believes that he was right to pull back from the Middle East and to not push back against Russia more in places like Ukraine and Syria. One has to question whether the 44th President of the United States was too quick to allow Russia to control not only the narrative but the political landscape and the physical battlefields of the 21st century’s greatest armed conflicts.