Russia’s refusal to support U.N. action against Syria is contributing to the sectarian civil war they claim to be eager to avoid, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today. .
“The Russians keep telling us they want to do everything to avoid a civil war, because they believe that the violence would be catastrophic,” she said. “They often in their conversations with me liken it to the equivalent of a very large Lebanese war and they are vociferous in their claim that they are providing a stabilizing influence.
“I reject that. I think that they are in fact propping up the regime at a time when we should be working on a political transition.”
The Kremlin’s stance puts geo-political strategic concerns well ahead of humanitarian considerations, says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “Russia has taken a firm stand that it would not be allowed to use the U.N. Security Council for regime change, for toppling a national leader. This is Russia’s firm stance that this is not what the U.N. Security Council is for,” Lipman said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s virulent anti-Americanism – he reportedly said today that he will never again set foot on U.S. soil – is also driving policy on Syria.
“Russia has made it very clear that it will not come on board with Western countries, especially given the physical stage in U.S.-Russia relations,” said Lipman. “This stand will remain firm.”
One has been to stoke sectarian tension by provoking fears among Syria’s many minorities of a backlash by extremists within the Sunni majority. Yet, despite occasional revenge attacks on Alawites and the spread of radical jihadism among some Sunnis, Syrian society has so far remained fairly cohesive. Alawite settlements that could be vulnerable have not been attacked, and the opposition has tried to maintain the rhetoric of inclusion.
The other tactic, ramping up violence to provoke an armed response that would undermine the opposition’s claim to be peaceful, has similarly reached the limit of its effectiveness. The rebels’ resort to arms did at first alienate many Syrians who wanted the uprising to stay wholly peaceful, but the violence has reached a scale where the state can impose its will only by being even more brutal.
“Events like Houla are not signs of strength but of weakness,” says an analyst. “It just makes clear that the regime has run out of other options.”
The Obama administration has reportedly sought to engage Moscow on preparing a Yemeni scenario, under which Assad and his clique will gradually cede power in an internationally-supervised transition process along the lines of the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal in the impoverished Gulf state.
“The big question today is to implement the Libyan or Yemeni scenario in Syria,” the head of a Damascus-based think tank told GlobalPost, requesting anonymity to speak without fear of reprisal.
“The United Sates will discuss the Yemeni scenario with Russia to implement it in Syria, but if Russia refused then the Libyan scenario is coming for sure.”
International military intervention remains unlikely and the opposition lacks the military capacity to challenge the regime’s troops and irregular militia.
“The Syrian opposition is not going to be in a position to take and hold ground against the Syrian armed forces. What they can do is stage raids, provocations,” said James Dobbins, head of international and security policy for the Rand Corp.
Syria is presenting President Barack Obama with arguably the greatest foreign policy dilemma of his administration, Philip Gourevitch writes in The New Yorker.
“As a rule, Obama has avoided any rigid foreign-policy doctrine, preferring to indicate broad principles and then respond to crises case by case,” he says.
The recently announced Atrocities Prevention Board “is essentially a technocratic instrument of statecraft,” says Gourevitch:
Obama seemed to recognize the awkwardness of such an initiative at a time when Assad remains in power, and the Taliban stands poised to reclaim swaths of Afghanistan. “There will be senseless deaths that aren’t prevented,” he said. “There will be stories of pain and hardship that test our hopes and try our conscience.”
That, perhaps, is what we have learned.
“It is getting dangerously late for the Obama administration to get on the right side of history in Syria,” writes Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco. But there is still time for the administration to adopt a Plan C:
First, Moscow simply cannot have it both ways. It has to be called out internationally for continuing to resupply Assad’s armed forces under the cover of a peace plan it claims to be supporting. Even if the Russians veto it, the U.S. should be pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that all countries cease providing arms to the combatants and dare Moscow (or China) to veto it. ….
Two, the Houla massacre was not the first straw, nor it will be the last straw. The European Union should file appropriate papers before the International Criminal Court accusing Assad and his immediate siblings of crimes against humanity. Delegitimizing this regime is a crucial step and it is lame for the administration to assert that by doing so it undercuts a “Yemen”-type solution which is not in the cards.
Three, it’s time for a “Kofi Break” … The vainglorious Annan will never concede Assad outsmarted him. Annan, like many another meek, milquetoast, diplomat before him, is out gunned and out of his league. Most importantly, he is out of credibility. There are plenty of other diplomats around with real backbone to deal with Assad. How about James Baker, Madeleine Albright, or Henry Kissinger? Each have more cojones than Annan ever will hope to have.
Four, the longer the U.S. dawdles about providing lethal arms to the Free Syrian Forces, the more likely that a radicalized anti-American regime will emerge from the ruins of the Assad dynasty. ………
Five, the air space in and out of Syria should be scrutinized for any international carrier hauling military equipment into Syria. If the U.N. refuses to act in unison against the Russian and Iranian arms resupplies, then the U.S. and its European Union allies should sanction any air cargo or shipping company that is reasonably suspected of funneling arms to Assad.
Six, if we leave the feckless Syrian opposition to figure out how to coalesce, there will never be a legitimate opposition to Assad. The time has come for the U.S., the EU, Turkey and the Arab League to adopt a joint approach toward bringing some much needed order out of the chaotic Syrian opposition. ………..
Seven, time for armchair generals to get out the way. The Syrian people from the major cities of Aleppo and Homs to the small towns such as Houla are desperately short of food and medicine. Assad has prevented every form of humanitarian relief from reaching his victims, who are perishing by the minute. To temporarily alleviate this human suffering, and notwithstanding Assad’s threats to prevent the aid, the Arab Red Crescent Society should be leading a humanitarian airlift under the protection of U.N. cargo planes protected by U.S., Turkish, Arab, and EU air forces to facilitate the delivery of crucial humanitarian supplies. ……
Eight, the U.S. and its European allies have not adequately pulled the economic sanctions lever on Syria’s banking institutions. Syria’s national bank and collateral financial institutions have not been subjected to the same sanctions the U.S. has cleverly orchestrated against Iran’s financial institutions. Why not? What are the U.S. and its European allies waiting for?