The Russian factor in the Syrian crisis

The Russian factor in the Syrian crisis

The Russian factor in the Syrian crisis

In a long-winded speech before Syria’s newly elected Parliament on Sunday, President Bashar Assad offered no new initiatives to end the 15-month-long popular uprising against his regime. Instead he appeared to be in a state of denial, refusing to recognize the legitimate demands of his countrymen while blaming foreign conspirators for waging war against Syria using what he described as internal tools.
He blamed terrorists for the series of violent incidents against civilians, the last of which was the massacre of more than 90 residents of Al Houla, the majority of whom were women and children. Although UN officials and monitors said there is evidence linking the carnage to pro-government forces and militias, President Assad rejected all claims of culpability.
There was no change in Assad’s diagnosis to the problem. He appeared defiant and called on Syrians “to defend the homeland against foreign conspiracy.” His speech was condemned by the Syrian opposition, which said that Assad has chosen to continue with “a bloody solution to the crisis.” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal described the situation as “extremely dangerous” adding that the Damascus regime was maneuvering to avoid submitting to UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan.
Arab foreign ministers called on the UN Security Council to intervene in Syria under the organization’s Article Seven of its Charter. But without support from Russia and China both Arabs and the international community appear helpless.
Al Houla massacre should have been a turning point in the Syrian crisis. It signaled the failure of Annan’s plan which calls on the Syrian regime to withdraw its army from population centers and observe a cease-fire. But in the past few weeks the army has increased its shelling of Homs, Hama and other rebellious towns. Recently, Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and its commercial capital joined the uprising. Even suburbs of Damascus continued to protest the regime despite violent retaliation by the army and loyalist militias known as Shabiha. Assad’s violent repression of opponents has failed to quell the rebellion.
The danger of a regional spillover materialized this week when Syria-related confrontations broke out in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between Sunni and Alawite residents. The Lebanese Army had to move in to separate armed bands. Prince Al Faisal accused the Damascus regime of attempting to turn the conflict into a sectarian one. Syria’s neighbors, including Jordan, also fear a spillover effect from the Syrian crisis. In Amman one political commentator, Orieb Rintawi, wrote in Addustour daily on Monday that Jordan finds itself increasingly under pressure because of its position on the crisis. On the one hand, he wrote, Jordan cannot move very far from the political position of its Gulf allies, but it cannot support calls to arm and train the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian conflict is getting more complicated by the day. The regime remains strong but its violent response to the uprising will not end it anytime soon. On the other hand, the Arabs are unable to bring pressure to bear on Russia and China to change their stances. Moreover, the Syrian opposition is weak and fragmented and there are signs of deep divisions between its domestic and exiled flanks.
Direct foreign intervention remains an option, but it is one that needs a legal cover and political willingness. The West — the United States and Europe — is busy with domestic political and economic issues. There is only one plausible path and that is to convince the Russians to change their position and apply pressure on the Assad regime.
This appears to be the only open path today. But until such a breakthrough is achieved, the Syrian government will continue to pursue a military solution. Where does this leave the Annan peace plan? His report to the UN Security Council soon will present a test to efforts to change Moscow’s position. On Saturday, the special envoy warned of “all-out civil war, with a worrying sectarian dimension,” if the peace plan fails. It will be difficult for Russia to ignore Annan’s warnings. Abandoning his plan will distress international relations at a time when President Vladimir Putin is hoping to iron out differences with Europe and the United States.
A new deal on Syria between Russia and the rest of the world is not far-fetched. But it will not guarantee an immediate end to the Syrian crisis. President Assad is unlikely to change his policies or accept a political deal that will take him out of the picture.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground will get worse. The possibility of a civil and sectarian war breaking out in Syria is real. The spillover effect cannot be ignored.
But if Russia alters its position on Syria, other options may become possible. They include setting up humanitarian corridors or buffer zones along the Turkish and Jordanian borders to act as safe havens for thousands of hapless civilians who are fleeing their hometowns. This could send a strong message to President Assad. He needs to know that he cannot rely on Moscow’s support forever.

 Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
 

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