Since unrest began in Syria in the spring of 2011, reporting from the country has been difficult. Former contacts are now dead or can’t be located, and the country lies in ruins. Now, amid harrowing conditions, the balance of power appears to have shifted, with rebels beginning to gain the upper hand.
Night falls quickly in Syria, as the overloaded pickup trucks carrying stray refugee families emerge through the mist. The headlight beams from our car fall over destroyed houses on our drive through olive groves and abandoned towns. Campfires can occasionally be seen in the distance.
We’ve driven along this road once before, in April 2012, which these days seems like an eternity ago. At the time, there was still electricity here, and people still lived in Taftanas, Sarmin, Kurin and other villages in Idlib Province, in northern Syria. But now, in December 2012, entire villages are empty and pockmarked with bullet holes, their residents having fled from airstrikes, hunger and frigid temperatures.
After a while, we reach a village where residents did not openly demonstrate against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in the past. As a result, they still have electricity today. A man opens a door, shivering as he looks out at the damp, cold landscape. “Thank God for this weather!” he says wryly. It’s been raining for days, and everything seems immersed in fog and mud. But the fog is also a deterrent against aircraft and helicopters, sparing the area the usual bombardment for a few days and providing a moment of calm in the midst of the apocalypse.
Today, Syria is a devastated country. The cities have turned into battlefields, and in the places from which the Assad regime’s troops and militias were forced to withdraw, its air force is now incinerating the infrastructure.
Nevertheless, after months of static conflict between unequally matched forces, during which provinces were neither lost by the regime nor gained by the rebels, the balance has suddenly shifted. Military camps, airports and cities are falling to the rebels, while demoralized and hungry Syrian army units are simply giving up. The rebels are already on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, the capital. The army is defending its last bastions in the north and east, like islands in a sea, only able to receive supplies from the air. Even the Russian government, Assad’s most important ally next to Iran, is gradually abandoning the dictator. Before Christmas, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he wasn’t concerned with the fate of the Assad regime.
On Nov. 27, a clip appeared on YouTube of a Russian-made Syrian military helicopter apparently being hit by Syrian rebels using a surface-to-air missile. The footage of the gunship, smoking as it turns and flies away, suddenly made the most effective killing machines in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military look very vulnerable, as the brutal war between the Syrian government and anti-Assad rebels continues. Luckily for Assad, help appears to be on the way.
One day before the clip appeared, hackers from the group Anonymous leaked what they claim is a cache of documents stolen from the Syrian Foreign Ministry. As first reported by the non-profit investigative news organization, ProPublica, one set appears to detail shipments from Moscow to Damascus of 240 tons of newly printed Syrian money, which the Russian government has publicly acknowledged printing for the Assad regime. Another document looks to be a flight plan for four shipments of refurbished helicopters, also going from Moscow to Syria. The shipments, whose cargo the document lists in English as “old copter after overhauling,” include one delivery on Nov. 21, a second one on Nov. 28, and two more planned for the first week of December. According to the document, the payment for these shipments was made “in cash,” and their circuitous route through the skies above Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan would circumvent the airspace of all the countries that have imposed a weapons embargo on Syria.
(PHOTOS: Inside Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)
“It’s getting to Syria by the back door,” says Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which operates an air-trafficking surveillance project on behalf of the European Union. Griffiths, who says the leaked flight plan appears to be genuine, sees it as the latest step in Russia’s effort to repair and then deliver Assad’s fixed-up helicopters by any means necessary. This effort has already come up against some major hurdles, with the U.S., the E.U. and Turkey making extensive efforts to stop such deliveries from crossing their airspace or territorial waters.
Imagine this: The three men sit in a Moscow court, awaiting their verdict. The youngest, an experienced dissident described by Western media as a “sultry sex symbol” with “Angelina Jolie lips,” glances at his colleague, an activist praised by the Associated Press for his “pre-Raphaelite looks.” Between them sits a third man, whose lack of glamour has led the New Republic to label him “the brain” and deem his hair a “poof of dirty blonde frizz.” The dissidents — or “boys” as they are called in headlines around the world — have been the subject of numerous fashion and style profiles ever since they first spoke out against the Russian government. “He’s a flash of moving color,” the New York Times writes approvingly about their protests, “never an individual boy.”
If this sounds ridiculous, it should — and not just because I’ve changed their gender. These are actual excerpts from the Western media coverage of Pussy Riot, the Russian dissident performance art collective sentenced to two years in prison for protesting against the government. Pussy Riot identifies as feminist, but you would never know it from the Western media, who celebrate the group with the same language that the Russian regime uses to marginalize them.
The three members of Pussy Riot are “girls,” despite the fact that all of them are in their 20s and two are mothers. They are “punkettes,” diminutive variations on a 1990s indie-rock prototype that has little resemblance to Pussy Riot’s own trajectory as independent artists and activists. “Why is Vladimir Putin afraid of three little girls?” asked a Huffington Post blogger who is not prominent but whose narrative frame, a question intended as a compliment, is an extreme but not atypical example of the West’s reaction to and misunderstanding of Pussy Riot.
As far as Pussy Riot’s problems go, being characterized as “girls” by the press ranks pretty low. So does the lack of vegan food in Russian prisons (the object of a clueless campaign by fellow 1990s throwback Alicia Silverstone). Both are trivial compared to the two years of hard time they face. But Pussy Riot tells us a lot about how we see non-Western political dissent in the new media age, and could suggest a habit of mischaracterizing their grave mission in terms that feel more familiar but ultimately sell the dissidents short: youthful rebellion, rock and roll, damsels in distress. The fanfare surrounding the trial has been compared to Kony2012, and while that may be true in terms of public attention, it is not in substance — unlike the Africans depicted in Kony2012 by American activists, Pussy Riot are the directors of their own campaign. But looking at their Western supporters, one wonders how well their message is getting across.
You don’t call your group Pussy Riot without trying to construct a gender identity.
NO FOREIGN leader can talk to Vladimir Putin these days without discussing Syria. And the Russian president has met many this month, as he hopped from Paris to Berlin to a Russia-European Union summit in St Petersburg and on to China. European leaders in particular pressed him to take a firmer line against Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. But Mr Putin stuck firmly to his position: both sides are to blame, and any push from the West to unseat Mr Assad risks igniting civil war.
That Russia has been able to place itself at the centre of Syria’s grim drama shows, in one sense, the success of its strategy. The Russians have some special interests in the country—more than 75% of Syria’s weapons are bought from Russia, for example, and it has a naval facility at Tartus. But its policy ever since the uprising began over a year ago has never really been about Syria, but about showing that Russia is an influential and pivotal world power whose voice must be heeded.
The Russians believe that their stubbornness has changed how the world responds to Syria—and that alone is a victory. The peace initiative of Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, is really a product of Russia’s making. In recent months “the world was beating a path to Moscow’s door,” says Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch, who met Russian officials this spring. “Their chests were all pumped up.”
The West has looked at Syria through the lens of democracy and human rights, towards which the Russian government is instinctively sceptical, if not actively hostile. The Russians prefer to see it as a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran as much as a home-grown uprising. And they think both that the Assad regime has shown more restraint than it is given credit for and that the opposition has been less peaceable than is often reported.
Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization has created a quandary for Congress. On the one hand, members want to respect WTO rules and allow free trade with Russia, thereby further integrating that country into the world economy. On the other hand, many in the policymaking community have concerns over the Russian government’s human-rights record and do not want, in effect, to reward an undeserving Moscow with unfettered access to American markets. For this reason, Congress has yet to repeal the 1975 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which stipulates that the United States cannot grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations to non-market economies that restrict emigration, a practice the Soviet Union once engaged in. The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, and Russia long ago removed all impediments to citizens who wish to leave the country, but Congress has kept Jackson-Vanik in place, hoping to use it as leverage with the Russian government. As a result, the United States cannot engage in unrestricted trade with Russia, and Russia, of course, is responding in kind by limiting American access to its markets.
Congress, though, seems to have found a way out of this impasse by swapping one piece of human-rights legislation for another: Several leading members of Congress have said they would vote to repeal Jackson-Vanik if the so-called Magnitsky Bill is passed. This bill seeks to bar from the United States, and freeze the assets of, Russian officials responsible for the November 2010 death of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky and for “other gross violations of human rights.” Magnitsky was investigating tax fraud by Russian officials, who in turn apparently sought to silence him by charging him with fraud, locking him up in pre-trial detention and denying him medical attention that likely would have saved his life. Magnitsky’s death sparked international outrage, and the Magnistky Bill is Congress’s attempt to hold the guilty parties responsible. By substituting the Magnitsky Act for Jackson-Vanik, the United States would seem to accomplish both its goals: getting free trade with Russia and keeping up the pressure on the Kremlin to respect human rights.