Syria: a slow retreat from the abyss
At long last, the Syrian tragedy may make a credible start to moving away from the precipice. In an unexpected move Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Holland decided today to work closely with Russia to end the bloody suppression of the Syrian people.
This is significant because Syrian President Bashar Assad is a Russian protégé in the tussle for influence in the region between Washington and Saudi Arabia on one side and the new Vladimir Putin regime on the other. Despite his distrust of Washington, Putin is shocked at the weekend massacre of 108 people in the poor farming villages of the Houla municipality, including some 49 children and 34 women.
Syria is an important client state for Russia and a major buyer of arms and other exports. A large shipment of weapons was delivered just days ago and Moscow is concerned that pro-government fighters, not necessarily members of Assad’s army, may turn more of them against civilians. The Syrian government has flatly denied involvement in the Houla slaughter. But the villages are interspersed with army bases and killings might have been the work of pro-government militia hunting rebels hiding among the civilians. It is common during armed uprising for villagers to give shelter to rebel guerrillas because of coercion or sympathy.
Moscow is seeing Syria as a zero sum game. It thinks that Assad’s fall will lead either to chaotic tribal violence or put the country in the hands of Washington-backed elements or Saudi-backed radical Sunni Muslims. That would end Russia’s only toehold in the region. It would also make Russia’s Muslim territories more vulnerable to radical Islamists trained by Salafi preachers from Saudi religious centers.
Yet, setting aside misgivings, Moscow stepped forward today to strongly condemn the Houla massacre although it is not yet clear whether Assad was behind it. Following a meeting with his British counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia is not interested in propping up Assad. Instead it wants Assad to implement a plan brokered by UN special envoy Kofi Annan. He endorsed a UN report earlier this week that put most of the blame for the deaths, currently estimated at 12,000 over 15 months, on the Syrian government while noting that opposition, too, has caused many deaths.
This changed tone backed by a joint Russian-British-French effort to boost Annan might allow the UN Security Council to approve tougher words against Assad. In the past, it has been stymied by a Russian veto. China may also stop saying no and say yes or abstain.
However, nothing is likely to change inside Syria until the US and the NATO allies threaten military force to topple Assad, similarly to Libya when Muammar Gaddafi began killing his own people. That kind of credible threat seems unlikely at this time because of war-weariness in the US and President Barack Obama’s election season. Neither the US nor Europe has the money required to finance another relentless air campaign even if no boots are placed on the ground.
Still, withdrawal of Russian support from Assad, or even equivocation in that support, could severely weaken the Syrian President’s position in the eyes of his backers inside Syria. That might persuade him to follow the Annan plan, provided that he does not lose his head to bullets or a hangman’s rope, or end up serving life after a verdict of the World Court. In that case, he might prefer to die in the civil war. His British wife and children are already safely in the UK.
Annan arrived in Syria on Monday for more talks and to meet some of the over 250 UN peacekeepers who entered in May to monitor the violence. Before the Houla tragedy his peace plan, which calls for a cease-fire and dialogue, was floundering without hope. It might now become the starting point of a slow crawl away from full civil war and anarchy.