‘Cult Pandering’ and the Geopolitics of Russian War Demonstrations at Syrian Universities

Speaker: Jee rubin

In March 2022, international media outlets ran reports of pro-Russian war demonstrations at universities across Syria. While the Syrian State News Agency claimed a headcount in the thousands, footage from the University of Damascus—the country’s largest institution for higher education—showed modest crowds. There, young people were rigidly organized into a massive Z formation, waving Russian flags and chanting about the war in Ukraine. Though journalistic coverage framed the demonstration as a solidarity event, such a reading ignores the Assad regime’s longstanding use of universities as sites for coercively-organized political spectacle. Previously, however, events of this kind focused almost entirely on extolling the Assad dynasty, save for references to its martyrs or to regional issues seen as critical to its domestic footing. In this light, the significance of these ‘protests’ points not to possible inferences about public opinion, but rather to questions regarding the shifting parameters of Syrian higher education (HE) as a theatre for geopolitical power struggles.

Drawing on visual analysis of digital artefacts from the event, this paper argues that these demonstrations represent a novel iteration of an otherwise tired form of state propaganda in Syria. Born out of Assad’s indebtedness to Putin, the pro-Russian spectacle reflects emergent political realities that include the regime’s increased threshold toward foreign interests in domestic settings. Here, I propose the term ‘cult pandering’ to describe the process by which a leader like Assad leverages a cult of personality to gratify its external allies and patrons. Doing so involves objectifying the subject’s body as both a ‘site and sight’ of geopolitical transaction, upon which a co-instantiation of power and pleasure come to play out. To forward this argument, I revisit Lisa Wedeen’s seminal theorization of the regime spectacle as a domestic phenomena by asking how modes of symbolic power instead operate within the foreign relations and wartime affairs of autocratic regimes.

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