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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Vacation on Syria\'s Front Lines Goes Wrong for Russian Judge

A Russian judge who decided to spend his vacation moonlighting as a war correspondent in Syria survived being shot in the face and arm this week in the Damascus suburb of Darayya, according to the Web news agency he writes for as a volunteer.

The shooting of the judge, Sergey Aleksandrovich Berezhnoy, was caught on video by the crew from the Abkhazian Network News Agency he was accompanying as it reported on a unit of the Syrian Army fighting rebel forces outside the capital. The ANNA video report shows him snapping photographs on a ruined street before the incident, and also includes graphic scenes from the emergency surgery in a Syrian military hospital that saved his life.

A video report from an Abkhazian news agency embedded with a Syria Army outside Damascus showed a Russian judge

What exactly the 57-year-old deputy chairman of a provincial arbitration court in the Russian city of Belgorod was doing on a Syrian front line on Monday remains unclear. His wife told reporters that her husband had traveled to Syria “on a charity mission,” Russia’s state news agency reported. His boss told a Russian news site that he knew Mr. Berezhnoy was on vacation but had no idea where he’d gone until reports of his misadventure in Syria surfaced.

An account of the shooting published on Monday by the Abkhaz news agency’s manager, Marat Musin, described the judge as a prize-winning prose stylist but mentioned in passing that Mr. Berezhnoy had fought, as a military intelligence officer, in the separatist wars that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. One of those conflicts was in Abkhazia, the breakaway Georgian republic now governed by Russia, Mr. Musin wrote:

Sergey Aleksandrovich who fought for five years as an intelligence officer in Abkhazia and in other hot spots of our vast Motherland did not utter a single groan. Surgery was made by a general, the head of the military hospital. The bullet will be extracted tonight or tomorrow morning.

Before the volunteer member of our agency and well-known writer was wounded, we drove to the front line in the vicinity of Skaine mosque in Darayya. Sergey Berezhnoy is the winner of many literary prizes, namely for his military prose.

Mr. Musin went on to describe how the Russians embedded with the Syrian Army were forced to cross one “fire-swept street” after another as they attempted to make their way to safety. After a rebel sniper nearly shot the crew’s translator, Viktor Kuznetsov, in the head, Mr. Musin wrote:

The next to cross this street was Sergey. The first bullet did not stop him; neither did the second which hit his arm. He managed to run to the safety of a wall and stood up there.

I couldn’t understand why he was standing there instead of stealing into a hole. When we saw a stream of blood, we realized what had happened. The wounded Sergey Berezhnoy had to run across another fire-swept street. Then we were in a car to the hospital for tomography, x-ray and surgery.

To stifle his groans he tried to joke.

Please, light a candle for the miraculous s! urvival o! f my friend.

The reference to Mr. Berezhnoy’s past service in military intelligence got the attention of reporters in Moscow, who were trying to puzzle out what the Russian was doing in Syria.

But after even state television mentioned his intelligence career, the judge himself denied that he was a spy in a blog post published on the ANNA Web site early Thursday, apparently written from a hospital bed in Damascus.

As The Moscow Times reported, Mr. Berezhnoy invoked a version of the domino theory to explain his motivation to bear witness to the Syrian struggle against rebels he characterized as sectarian, Islamist “terrorists.” If President Bashar al-Assad were to fall, he speculated, the instability would quickly ripple to the Russian Caucuses, then to the Volga region and the Urals, until all of “Mother Russia” would be “dismembered.”

Asked about Mr. Berezhnoy’s case at a b! riefing on Thursday, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, described him as a “volunteer” the government knew nothing about.

The dramatic video of the Russian judge being wounded and operated on drew attention to the work of the previously obscure news agency and raised questions about who its reporting is aimed at. Chief among those questions was why a tiny Georgian enclave attached to Russia’s Black Sea coast would set up a news agency that appears to be devoted almost entirely to coverage of Syria. Of more than 300 video reports posted on the ANNA ouTube channel in the past two years, all but a handful on Libya appear to be about the Syrian civil war, as seen from the government’s perspective.

What relationship, exactly, ANNA bears to Abkhazia is also unclear. An online biography for the news agency’s manager, Marat Musin, describes him as a professor at Moscow University and the “deputy head of the Russian Committee for Solidarity with the Peoples of Syria and Libya.”

One theory, supported by the fact that several of the ANNA video reports are subtitled in English, is that the producers of the clips might be working in support of a Russian foreign policy aim, to cast the Syrian government’s battle with “terrorism” in a more positive light for viewers outside Russia. The news agency’s reports, which appear online under the motto “Truth Explaining Facts | Facts Supporting Truth,” could be part of an effort to make a better case for Mr. Assad’s g! overnment! , and partly redress the imbalance in global public opinion that formed early in 2011, when images of peaceful protesters being shot at by the Syrian security forces flooded social networks.

A typical example is a video report from earlier this month on the fighting in Darayya that features an interview with a Syrian general explaining the struggle. The report begins with images of government soldiers mocking the rebel battle cry of “Allahu Akbar” or “God Is Great.”

A recent video report, with English subtitles on the Syrian military’s effort to regain control of a Damascus suburb.

Another video report, from last week, featured an interviews with a Syrian government soldiers who claimed that the rebels had plaed mines in a mosque in the Damascus suburb, “trying to flame a sectarian war; but they will not manage to do so, because the Syrian people are one, while they are foreigners.”

A video report shot last week by a Russian news agency crew embedded with Syrian troops.

While the efforts of the Abkhaz news agency are in line with the Russian government’s support for the Assad government, the battle for Russian hearts and minds is not at all one-sided.

There are many, many Russian citizens in Syria â€" 30,000 was the estimate from the Russian embassy there last year, but it could be considerably more than that â€" in large part as the result of decades of intermarriage between Syrian men and Russian women.

Though Russia’s government has provided Mr. Assad with crucial political support, ! it’s no! t clear that the Russians in Syria support that view â€" in fact, a deputy foreign minister in December said in an unscripted moment that half the Russians in Syria hold opposition views. In many cases, this may be because they are women married to Syrian men who support the opposition. Moreover, in Syria there are a significant number of ethnic Circassians, a non-Slavic ethnic group which was driven out of the south of Russia by the Tsar’s armies, and many of them are critical of the Kremlin’s pro-Assad position.

Just last week, the Saudi satellite news channel Al Arabiya discovered (and translated into English) a propaganda video posted online by a rebel brigade in which a Russian-speaking woman declared her allegiance to the Free Syrian Army.

Video posted online by Syrian rebels featured a Russian-speaking woman declaring her support for the uprising.

Wearing a military uniform, and holding a camera, the woman said: “I am a Russian citizen and am standing amongst members of the Free Syrian Army. Every person here has the right to fight back and defend himself and his family. Waiting for aid from the Russian government is pointless, and it’s completely idiotic to wait for the Syrian regime’s help as well.”

Her declaration concluded:

Both the Russian and Syrian people are peaceful and of good hearts, but the governments in both countries are aiming to destroy Syria. And a government like this will topple sooner or later.

On a personal level, I used to be a supporter of Bashar al-Assad, until I witnessed with my own eyes how his forces destroyed my neighborhood and killed my relatives. And the Shabiha! kidnappe! d girls from the streets and have done many unrighteous acts towards them. As such, we should not forgive them and I will continues to protect whatever is left for me here.

Nikolay Khalip contributed reporting.