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This article was originally published in November 2011 in the Vibe

The Arab Spring was out in full force in London on the last weekend of November. The flags of Arab nations waved outside of embassies; angry Syrians, Egyptians and Bahrainis shouting in solidarity with their brethren back home. I went down on Saturday to stand in the cold with some of these demonstrators and to see how their own little wars in this affluent corner of London reflected the wider struggles in the Middle East.

First stop was the Egyptians. Just south of the Americans’ imposing behemoth on Grosvenor Square, the Egyptian embassy is tucked away down a small road, housed in an unassuming white building. Even from only a block away, the protest sounded quiet. The narrow streets contained the noise, preventing the sound of guttural Arabic slogans from escaping the tightly confined protest area. But it made it all the more impressive once you had reached the fenced-in group of demonstrators.

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A different set of colours has been hoisted above the Libyan embassy in Damascus. The Libyan ambassador and diplomatic staff in Damascus announced on Sunday that they had changed loyalties and were now supporting the opposition National Transitional Council and so the red, green and black of the old Kingdom of Libya flag is now flying proudly over the diplomatic mission in Roudah. The propagandist pictures of Libyan children killed by NATO air strikes have also been ripped off from the display boards.

The development actually made the front page of al-Watan, one of the largest state owned Syrian newspapers, alongside a picture of a burning poster of Muammar Gaddafi. Unsurprisingly, the regime controlled media has jumped on the ‘people power’ bandwagon, recently championing the cause of the plucky rebels in the face of a demented and ruthless dictator. One headline relished in the fact that “The rebels are searching for him [Gaddafi], alley by alley… house by house”, a jibe at one of the Colonel’s rants early in the revolution.

The Syrian propaganda machine took a similar stance after the Egyptian revolution, suggesting that Arab leaders must listen to their people. Of course Syria would never have to worry about disgruntled citizens; Mr President Bashar al-Assad understands the wishes and desires of the Syrian people.

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The Russian factor

Along with the usual Syrian flags and posters of a stern looking Bashar al Assad, the shops selling patriotic paraphernalia across Damascus have more recently added another item to their stock: the red, blue and white of the Russian flag. Since it vetoed a United Nations motion to condemn the regime crackdown in Syria, Russia has become the pro-government supporters’ favourite foreign backer. A close look at the pictures of a pro-regime mob attacking the US embassy, angry at the ambassador’s recent trip to the besieged city of Hama, reveals a Russian banner held aloft by one of the would-be embassy invaders.

The Russian-Syrian alliance is by no means new and was forged during the Soviet period on the back of socialist ideals and a mutual desire to antagonise the West. Military interests have kept the two countries cosy since then. Since 1971 Russia has leased port facilities in Tartous for its navy. These were falling into disrepair until 2008, and the South Ossetia War, when Russia decided that it wanted to revamp its naval capabilities in the Mediterranean. There have also been negotiations over deploying Russian Iskander missiles in the country.

The Russian Cultural Centre, down the road from the Syrian Central Bank, is looking a bit tatty around the edges these days but still remains active as a instrument of soft power, encouraging young Syrians to learn Russian and develop life-long bonds with Russian culture.

Cultural exchanges are fine but as the government response to the uprising becomes increasingly bloody, Russia is not doing its international image any good by stubbornly backing a regime which, in this blogger’s humble opinion, will not be around in the long-term.

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