I’m typing these thoughts ferociously while sitting in a taxi on my way back to Beirut after spending a weekend in Syria, taking care of some charity work, which I’m supporting. It’s a rainy day and the highway between Latakia and the Areeda border is mostly empty besides the occasional truck by a local farmer transporting fresh vegetables. But then there is this other, massive presence dominating the streets that keeps angering me whenever we are passing them. A massive convoy of Russian military trucks, tanks and even Missile Defence Systems moving from the port in Tartous (according to the taxi driver) towards the permanent Russian military airbase in Hmeimim, close to Latakia. A city known to be the stronghold of Assad supporters and most recently the market place to buy Syrian-Russian souvenirs.
Since I moved to Beirut, I have started to spend more time thinking about the colonial history of the Levant and more importantly the way it was embraced. The Beiruti elite loves and emphasises its French influence and instead of returning to a more authentic life as a people of the Middle East following the independence in 1943, they have become even more Westernised than before by fully submerging into American pop culture and consumerism, while at the same time ignorantly destroying their own economy, culture and sense of belonging.
Recently a similar development has been emerging in Syria. Whenever I visit relatives and acquaintances, who are devoutly worshipping the Syrian regime under Bashar Al-Assad, I end up hearing Russian words casually introduced into the Arabic conversation. They are not aware of my very convinced opposition towards the brutal regime, which under its cruel leadership has been responsible for the violation of every imaginable crime put down in the Geneva Conventions. Moreover, no one would expect my dissenting views, since I’m from a minority background, which is not only strongly supporting the regime in general, but also endorsing every brutal campaign against any form of resistance, be it intellectual or armed.
The Russians aren’t just allies of the Syrian government. They are post-modern colonisers. They are a global power player occupying a strategically and geo-politically advantageous country, weakened by decades of dictatorship and devastated by an ongoing civil war. It might come as a surprise to some, since the propaganda war in the media seems to lean towards the established narrative by the Syrian regime. Assadand the Putin government have successfully planted the seed of doubt against any form of opposition, claiming to ensure Syria’s secularism by fighting against terrorist groups with an Islamist agenda rather than deliberately targeting civilian neighbourhoods, peaceful protestors and essential structures, such as hospitals, schools and bridges.
The Russian occupation of Syria can be best expressed by the fact that Syrian children starting from the tender age of 10 are being taught Russian in public government schools. Shops started selling souvenirs of the Russian and Syrian flag intertwined with slogans like ‘شكرا روسيا‘ and ‘Спасибо России’ (Thank you Russia). If you thought it couldn’t get any cringier, here is another bestseller on the Syrian market: Collector plates decorated with the face of Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad wearing camouflage uniforms, emanating a powerful arrogance and wearing pilot sunglasses as if they were famous rock stars instead of being responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Another worrisome trend is militarised fashion and aesthetic assimilation. Women in Syria love to wear camouflage and army shirts, expressing their loyalty and support towards the armed forces protecting them from the international conspiracy of Islamist terrorism, while aspiring to look more Slavic. This includes dying their hairs blond, having nose jobs done and, in some cases, wearing contact lenses to change their eye colour. Of course, this extreme extent of assimilation to the occupier’s identity is limited to the elite of die-hard Regime supporters and Nouveau Riche profiteering from the war.
Syria has become an occupied country by Russia led by geo-political interests. And the Syrians in regime-held areas profiteering from this deal with the devil don’t seem to mind it. They don’t seem to mind that Russian military deliveries can happen on Syrian soil without any sort of oversight by Syrian representatives, nevermind the beloved claim of sovereignty often cried out whenever other states are attempting any sort of intervention in Syria. They don’t mind that their children say ‘что?’ instead of ‘شو؟’ (what?) and most importantly they don’t mind that the lion share of imported products with subpar quality come from Russia and another crucial ally, China, allowing these countries to have new markets without any alternatives for the consumers and profiting from the poverty and need of the locals for goods that aren’t available otherwise, while at the same time destroying the Syrian economy, society and infrastructure with the continuous use of prohibited weapons.