Moscow’s Syrians eye post-election change

Opposition members hope a victory for Vladimir Putin will allow him to reconsider policy towards Damascus.

Bassil''s family
Bassel says intelligence services at the Syrian embassy in Moscow are spying on Russia’s Syrian opposition community

MOSCOW: Bassel is one of several thousand Syrians living in Moscow, having first come to Russia 22 years ago as a student. He has a Ukrainian wife and his four children were all born here
Following Russia’s decision to stand by Damascus and veto UN resolutions condemning the government of Bashar al-Assad, Bassel’s life, and the lives of many other members of Syria’s overseas opposition movement, has been a difficult one.

In October, Bassel’s mother, who lives in Karm Al-Zeitoun, a suburb of Damascus, rang him to tell him that the Syrian secret service had come to her home and asked her why her son was supporting the opposition in Moscow.

He said: “The security services threatened to take my brother, Wassim Hamad, if I did not stop going to the opposition meetings so I told him to buy a ticket and come to Russia immediately.

“Within days Wassim flew to Moscow, the day after he left the country the security services came to look for him at his university but he was gone.”

To Bassel’s surprise and concern, his brother returned to Syria, via Jordan, on Tuesday, to join the opposition movement inside the country.

Bassel, 40, lives in the northern Ostankino district of Moscow with his wife Irina, 28, and their four children, Ammar, seven, Sumayyah, three, Maryam, two and Safeeyah, one.

Irina, a convert to Islam, is expecting a fifth child later in the year. They live in a tiny flat, with the four children sharing just one bedroom.

At the beginning of last year they had decided to move back to Syria to a new house they have been building there, with 17 rooms and space for their children to play.

The violence in the country has derailed their plans, with Bassel saying it would now be impossible for him to gain entry to the country.

Religious divide

Bassel says that the Syrian community in Moscow has been split down religious lines following the uprising in Syria.

He said: “I had one [Alawite] friend, every day for many years we would go to sit in a restaurant. After the uprising, my friend said ‘Bassel, you see, they [the Sunnis] want to kill our army, our government’. We no longer speak to each other.”

Hafez al-Assad received air force training in MiG fighter jets in the Soviet Union [EPA]

Salahie Saad, 52, a businessman friend of Bassel, said: “I had an Alawite doctor, we have been friends for years, I even got registration for his foreign wife, but now we no longer talk, this happens a lot.”

Bassel says he has been to five or six anti-Assad demonstrations in Moscow, taking his son Ammar and his daughter Sumayyah along with him.

When asked what he thinks of Assad, Ammar said: “He is a goat who hasn’t got brains and I hate him. He is the enemy of all Muslims.”

Bassel says that intelligence services at the Syrian embassy in Moscow are spying on the Syrian opposition community.

He said: “Russia is aware of what’s happening and helping the Syrian intelligence services.”

Bassel says he wants to make clear that he has no malice towards the Russian people, making the distinction between them and the policies of the government.

Long-standing allies

Russia, along with China, was the target of widespread international condemnation last month when Moscow vetoed a UN resolution backing an Arab League plan for a swift transition of power and elections in Syria. 

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said she was “disgusted” by the vetoes.

Sergei Lavrov described the response, mainly from the West, as “indecent and perhaps on the verge of hysterical”.

Russia has long-standing relations with Syria, dating back centuries, and the countries were particularly close during the Cold War.

In 1957, Assad’s father Hafez, the former president and at the time a Syrian Air Force pilot, received his training in MiG fighter jets in the Soviet Union.

Moscow has major defence contracts with Damascus and recently signed a $550m deal to provide Syria with 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 attack planes.

Syria is also home to Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean at Tartous.

‘Cult of violence’

Explaining its actions at the UN, Russia has argued that countries should not interfere in the domestic policies of other nations, saying a group of countries cannot play the role of a global judge.

Lukashevich says a political settlement ‘should be made by the hands of Syrians themselves’ [MID]

Speaking to Al Jazeera, AK Lukashevich, the official representative of Russia’s foreign ministry, said: “We are talking about a political settlement that should be made by the hands of Syrians themselves through Syrian-led dialogue.”

Moscow also points to the violence that has taken place in Libya following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s former leader.

In February, Vladimir Putin, who is running for a third term as Russia’s president on Sunday, warned that Moscow must not let the uprisings in  Libya and Syria be repeated in Russia.

He said: “We of course condemn all violence regardless of its source, but one cannot act like a bull in a china shop.

“Help them, advise them, limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons, but do not interfere under any circumstances.
“A cult of violence has been coming to the fore in international affairs in the past decade.

“This cannot fail to cause concern … and we must not allow anything like this in our country.”

Loyal citizens

The Syrian Opposition Committee in Russia (SOCR) holds its meetings in Ostankino, the same district where Bassil, who is a member of the group, lives.

The organisation, comprising mainly of mostly Russian citizens who have settled in the country from Syria over the past decades, is keen to convey its loyalty to the Russian state.

Many of its members have married Russian women and their children have grown up in the country.

Saleh al-Suleiman, the co-ordinator of the SOCR, has lived in Russia since 1977 and has a Russian wife.

Discussing the pictures beamed to Moscow from Syria, he said: “Syrians have burnt Chinese and Russian flags during demonstrations.

“But here the Syrian opposition look at this with horror, because Russia’s flag is important for our families, we would rather prefer they burnt the portraits of Putin and [incumbent president Dmitry] Medvedev.”

‘Dirty campaign’

Al-Suleiman says that the Syrian community has been portrayed negatively in the Russian media.

Many SOCR members have married Russian women and their children have grown up in the country

“At the moment there is a dirty campaign against us in Russia, attacks in which it is claimed the Syrian opposition are asking for terrorism to take place against the Russian people,” he said.

“We are mainly secular people here, we are against violence, we were educated, grew up with Russian people. This is our second home.

“Unfortunately, most Russians support the government, Russia’s mass media isn’t giving the correct picture.

The organisation says the main reasons for Russia’s support for the Assad government are economic, particularly with regard to Russia’s gas interests in the region.

The committee says they want no-fly zones created along the Jordan and Turkish borders with Syria, safe havens where people can go if they leave Syria’s cities and the opposition in Syria to be supplied with small arms and ant-tank weapons.

Election hope

The SOCR admits they are fighting an uphill task in trying to change Russia’s foreign policy towards Syria.

As another Syrian opposition activist living in Russia said: “We are trying to explain things to the media, to our friends, we hope that after the election something will happen. I think that after the election something will happen.

“The election plays a huge part, at the moment Putin is concentrating on domestic matters but after the election he will be able to consider foreign affairs.”

Syrians hope following the election Putin will steer a path based more on economic realism, pointing out the huge energy contracts that Western powers have with Russia.

“Russia’s economic relations with Europe and the US are far more important than selling a few arms to Syria,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera