With the fighting in Syria reaching government buildings in Damascus and Minister of Defense Daoud Rajha and Bashar Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat killed in a suicide bombing attack, it seems bold to predict that the Syrian president has a good chance of surviving the turmoil in his country. Yet the Kremlin is still reluctant to abandon Assad.
Numerous explanations have been given for this, from Syria being Russia's last base in the Middle East to President Putin "seeing ghosts of revolution" in his own country that was rocked by mass protests following the parliamentary and presidential elections. However, the answer might be more simple: attributing the Arab Spring events to American conspiracies.
This week, Russian Middle East analyst Vyacheslav Matuzov, attending a round-table discussion at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, provided a fascinating glimpse into the Russian mindset on this topic. "There is no interest for Russia in the Arab world," former Russian government official announced. "Russia doesn't need Arab gas. It has no global companies like 'Shell,' it has no global aspirations. It's the Arabs who need to bring Russians to their side. What is bothering Russia is not the fate of Assad - we have no interest in it, and the Russian military base in Tartus is not serious. Russia is very pragmatic politically, and it might be ready to abandon Assad. What really bothers us - and Foreign Minister Lavrov is absolutely clear about this - is what world we'll leave tomorrow. Changing regimes is a precedent for tomorrow, and if we ruin the existing international law that prohibits intervention we'll live in a different world. To militarize these scenes is very dangerous."
So what will happen to Assad's regime?
"If the U.S. doesn't provide weapons to the opposition through Qatar etc., the regime will surely survive," said Matuzov. "I was with those responsible for the creation of this regime since the 1960s - it's not Assad, it's the system that was created. Russia behaved there responsibly, we sent weapons to Syria only for defense purposes. But the U.S. seems to behave with these interventions like an elephant in a jungle. I took part in a breakfast with revolutionary leaders in Syria - the organizers were American companies."
Are you concerned about the rise of Islamists in the Middle East?
"Religion is not dangerous, politics is," says Matuzov. "Islamic movements are usually used by some side. In the mid-1980s we had in Syria 6,000 Russian advisors headed by General Yashkin, and each week two or three officers were found with their throats cut. Hafez Assad said that Muslim Brotherhood members coming to Syria from Jordan were responsible - in Jordan they were at that time represented in parliament. A meeting with King Hussein in Jordan followed, and he said: 'I am not responsible for these people, they are hired by the American intelligence service. Today America embraces the Muslim Brotherhood, I am not sure it's in the national interest of the Russian Federation."
Matuzov, chairman of the Russian Friendship Society with Arab Countries, says that on the Arab Spring issues Israel has more in common with Russia than with the U.S. "I don't exclude that Putin's last visit to Israel had great meaning. Russia and Israel are closer on many Arab changes than America and Israel, and not because Avigdor Lieberman speaks Russian. You can't survive in the sea of hatred. Russia faces a similar danger spreading from the south."
See no evil
"Christians are going to be involved with the issue of Israel whether you are comfortable with it or not. We work to make sure they are on our side," says David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, as the organization that brags over 1.25 million supporters holds its seventh gathering in a Washington, DC convention center.
The event's organizers do their best to ensure that the event, with 5,000 in attendance, goes smoothly. Journalists are escorted everywhere and not allowed to mingle with participants, unlike in Jewish pro-Israel organizations' gatherings. Participants such as the man wearing a T-shirt calling same-sex marriage "anti-Christ" and accusing Obama of "changing God's plan" are obviously entitled to positions of their own. Formally, CUFI doesn't endorse any political candidates in U.S. presidential races, but they definitely slam the Democrat.
Ari Fleischer told of his days as President George W. Bush's White House spokesman that he was "proud to be American and especially proud to be a Jew when my briefings were covered by Al Jazeera."
"When I look over my left shoulder, I too often see boycotts, divestments and sanctions. Thank you for standing at my side and Israel's side," he said.
CUFI's founder, Pastor John Hagee, said the Obama administration's sanctions on Iran "are mostly smoke, all 20 of Iran's major trading partners got exemptions from sanctions. Wouldn't it be better if the two nations join forces and remove the nuclear threat?"
Then there is the issue of Jerusalem and the settlements. "Without Jerusalem there is no real life in Israel," Hagee announces. "It's where the Messiah is going to rule the Earth. I assure you, this madness is going to end. The president of the U.S. told the people of Jerusalem they can't build additional homes there. He has no authority to tell them that! They are a democracy!" (to another round of thunderous applause).
Minnesota conservative congresswoman Michele Bachmann stated that the U.S. "should recognize Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights," and called on Obama to forbid the entry of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi into the U.S. rather than invite him in, unless he "renounces jihad."
Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent Erick Stakelbeck announced, pretty much as the rest of the speakers, that once Iran gets the bomb, they will use it - and that "the Muslim Brotherhood model is 'jihad is our way.' This creed has never changed since they were founded. They'll be sitting at the White House in a couple of months," referring probably to President Obama's invitation extended to the new Egyptian president.
Veteran Senator Joe Lieberman asked the crowd, when they go to Capitol Hill to lobby their lawmakers, to insist that they ratchet up the sanctions. "If these toughest sanctions do not work, we will have to decide if we will act militarily to stop this scourge." President Assad, he said, "must fall within weeks - this will be the single biggest defeat for Iran in 25 years."
Morsi, Assad, the Iranian regime and Obama weren't the only targets - since this year's conference focused on college students, a special exhibition was there, with a warning sign at the entrance that read "the area you are about to enter is representative of the anti-Israeli propaganda students experience on their college campuses." There was a mock "apartheid wall" that is used often during the "Israel apartheid week" protests on campuses, the "rogues" wall with prominent Israel critics such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, a plasma screen with a video interview with a college professor calling rockets fired from Gaza "self-defense" and computers offering visitors opportunities to check out various CUFI activities on campuses.
Ossie Hill, an African-American woman who came with her husband from California to the CUFI conference for the second time. "CUFI keeps us really updated on what is going on in Israel, and how to pray for these issues," she says.
Most conference attendees were Christian, but there were also some skullcaps spotted at the event. One of the skullcaps belonged to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is running these days for Congress from New Jersey's District Nine. "There was a story recently that Israel is one of the most hated countries in the world", he told Haaretz. "In an age when Israel is so unfairly maligned and subject to such unwarranted vitriol, it's startling to see a vast group of millions who feel precisely the opposite - that Israel is the light, a beacon of human rights, freedom and a fulfillment of an ancient dream of Jewish destiny."
As author of "Kosher Jesus," Rabbi Boteach was appalled by MK Michael Ben Ari's tearing up the New Testament. "I've seen irrational Jewish reactions to Christian scriptures. This reaction on the part of some Jews to Christianity and their desire to denigrate it is a tragic reminder of how Judaism was often treated by Christians. They do that in Saudi Arabia. It's Taliban stuff. It's not Jewish."
Christian conference participants seemed less troubled by the incident. Joshua Ahrens, a student from Portland State University, said: "My support of Jews is unconditional. I was astonished how quickly Jewish people opened their hearts and minds to me, and the responsibility is on me to explain my motivations. So one person [Ben Ari] doesn't trouble me at all."
Ahrens says he decided to get involved with CUFI on campus after "hearing some anti-Semitic remarks by professors ... I was looking for an organization that deals with this kind of stuff."
Brog said that "stories like this [Ben Ari tearing up the New Testament] might disappoint our Christian friends, but I don't think it will deter them from their task."
Commenting on recent efforts by some churches to divest from companies that "support the Israeli occupation," Brog said: "We don't think their leadership will be influenced by us, but we create a me for their disaffected members."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the crowd via satellite from "the united, one and forever capital of the State of Israel," warning that "the forces of moderation are in retreat in the Middle East," while "one million Muslims [in Israel] enjoy rights they do not have in Muslim countries ... You understand Israel's right to defend itself against Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas. And I promise the Jewish people will never deny our own story. Judea and Samaria is the homeland of the Jewish people. Israel must defend the truth. One - and only one - Jewish state exists in the would and we will remain strong and free, a beacon of light in the Middle East," and the crowd rose to their feet, chanting "Bibi, Bibi, Bibi!"
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