The killings in Syria continue and the situation is getting worse by the day.
A UN Security Council Resolution calling for an end to the bloodshed and a peaceful change of government was yesterday blocked by Russia and China, despite the fact it was watered down in significant ways, including with respect to ruling out the possibility of a military intervention. This was an approximate repeat of the situation back in October when a similar initiative was again vetoed by Russia and China with abstentions from Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa. This time the vote fell more clearly 13 to 2, there were no abstentions but the double veto remained.
There are many reasons that explain Russia’s position. Syria has been a loyal ally since the Soviet Union times, is a big arms’ client and has signed an agreement allowing it to maintain a naval base at the Mediterranean port of Tartous. Against the background of the rising opposition to Putin’s candidacy for president, an additional reason behind Russia’s intransigence is the Prime Minister’s wish to send a message to Russian citizens that he, like Bashar Al-Assad, is still in control.
The Syrian conflict is internal in nature and the opposition is equally to blame for the violence, having neither clear nor unified demands. This is the Russian take on Syria. Putin has been making similar arguments vis-à-vis the street demonstrators in Moscow, who admittedly, are an odd mélange of liberals, communists and nationalists.
This line of argumentation is, of course, seriously flawed. The two sides to the conflicts are not on a par. For one, only one is controlling and abusing state violence through recourse to the army and the police forces.
Strangely, the fate of Bashar Al-Assad and Vladimir Putin might as of now be closely connected.
Al-Assad’s failure to recognize when it is time to step down in conjunction with the fact that he has everything to lose, since he now is also guilty for crimes against humanity, is what makes his regime extremely dangerous. For his part, Putin is counting on Al-Assad’s ability to wipe out the opposition and on the powerlessness of the Western Alliance and that of the Arab League to do anything against it, not least in view of the escalation of the conflict with Iran (another close ally) over oil supplies and nuclear weapons. Thus the conflict could be ‘frozen’ and time won.
Even if it is partly realized in the short-term, the above scenario is not viable in the long- or, even, mid-term. The opposition against Al-Assad’s regime is more widespread and comprehensive than originally thought and is growing by the day. The same is true about the Russian opposition to Putin. Moreover, modern forms of communication make it impossible to go on acting out massacres of the scale observed during the last couple of days. Finally, economic sanctions against Syria (and Iran) might take some time to have an effect but will do so eventually. In parallel, the West will begin to economically recover. The time won might, therefore, be short and inconsequential.
According to Harvey Morris writing for The International Herald Tribune, Russia’s opposition to the UN Security Council Resolution has also to do with Putin’s “assertive foreign policy [as] part of his platform for elections.” If that were to be the case, then it better be that Lavrov, the foreign minister, who is today on his way to Damascus, does not return empty-handed. That would be the only way for Russia (and China) to show that they have not entirely lost all their foreign policy acumen.