Only by engaging with the Putin government can we stop the conflict from escalating
The conflict in Syria moves into ever-more dangerous territory. By the day, the ghastly humanitarian situation in opposition centres such as Homs, besieged by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, becomes worse. But hopes that last week’s meeting of the Friends of Syria group of governments in Tunisia would offer some relief remain unfulfilled; instead, it has only amplified the escalating risks.
For while the foreign policy of western governments, including the US, UK and France, appeared ever more toothless and facile – split between the desire to avoid military intervention and the need to be seen to be doing something – the rhetoric of some Arab governments has become ever more bellicose.
Foremost among them are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The former, a country not noted as a beacon of human rights freedom and equality, which indeed backed Bahrain’s crackdown on its own opposition by sending troops into the country, has described the idea of arming Syria’s rebels as “excellent”.
Saudi’s interest, let us be clear, has little to do with the fate of the besieged citizens of Homs and elsewhere. Instead, it is deeply cynical, seeing the emerging conflict in Syria as an opportunity to push back the influence and power in the region of Iran, the principal local backer of Assad’s regime. Saudi involvement, even if it is only to supply weapons, risks a proxy war between the two powers in Syria and the wider threat of conflict between Sunni and Shia across the region.
For its part, Iran has little reason to resist the temptation to interfere in Syria at present, which is not only an ally but a key corridor for projecting Iranian influence into the Levant. The survival of Assad is in Tehran’s strategic interest; a continuing conflict in Syria, which in turn threatens a wider regional struggle, acts as a useful distraction just as the threats emanating from Israel of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities grow louder.
It is not only Saudi Arabia that is promising a more active role in Syria. Qatar, too, whose arming of rebel groups in Libya contributed to the post-conflict chaos, is also pushing for an armed Arab force to intervene, motivated in part by its ambition to extend its influence in the post-Arab Spring world.
Turkey, the last major regional player with a direct interest, sharing a border as it does with Syria, wants, instead, an arms embargo imposed on all sides in the conflict.
Confronted with these rising tensions, British foreign policy, not for the first time, seems reactive. The decision by the foreign secretary, William Hague, to recognise the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people both failed to satisfy the demands of that fractious exile group while looking alarmingly like a rerun of the mistaken investment in previous groups in both Iraq and Libya that represented themselves as having more influence and following than transpired. Any temptation to legitimise groups that claim to represent the broad interests of the Syrian population, as the west did so ill-advisedly with the Iraqi National Congress a decade ago, without a proper appreciation of their nature and motivations would be foolhardy in the extreme.
Which leaves the question: what is to be done?
Some of the solutions proposed in recent days verge on the fantastic, not least the notion by a former State Department official that the Syrian rebels might be armed, but only if they agree to use their weapons “defensively”.
The priority, it seems clear, is to bring a quick halt to the violence and to provide humanitarian assistance. This must include the evacuation of the wounded from the area, including the two injured journalists who were caught in the brutal assault that claimed the lives of the hugely respected Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik.
Wiser heads, including the authors of last week’s Chatham House report on Syria, have identified a series of key trends likely to influence the outcome of this conflict. That report noted that in the first five months of the uprising the Assad regime had spent almost a fifth of its foreign currency reserves paying to suppress the opposition, suggesting a key financial vulnerability to the regime’s survival.
For this reason, the announcement by the EU of a further freezing of Syrian assets is to be applauded.
That comes amid some anecdotal evidence that senior regime officials and figures in Assad’s ruling minority Alawite community are beginning to distance themselves from the regime, suggesting the first serious cracks at Syria’s centre.
Equally important will be the role Russia plays. The call by Moscow on Friday for a ceasefire was more significant than given credit by many observers. Indeed, the authors of the Chatham House report argue forcefully that Assad can only survive with Russia’s support and that Moscow, which arms and sustains Assad, will eventually abandon him out of self-interest.
Some analysts have already begun to suggest that the Russian government is anxious to row back from its veto on Syria at the UN and is already looking for a more nuanced position that would pressure Damascus into ceasing its hostilities while avoiding an escalation of the conflict.
If this is true, it is an opportunity that should not be allowed to slip. While Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an often unattractive spectacle, the west’s clumsy handling of Moscow in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union has contributed to its growing desire to push back against what it sees as the increasing incursion on its sphere of influence. If Russia is now feeling qualms about the bloodshed in Syria, it should be engaged with and persuaded it shares an interest in seeing an end to the killing.
Indeed, as Putin made clear on Friday, his country’s veto on Syria has been about rebuffing the misguided expectation in Washington that Moscow will simply go along with what is asked of it.
But what is imperative in the weeks ahead is not only that the efforts by organisations such as the International Red Cross to secure humanitarian access are supported but that the drift to a wider conflict involving regional powers is avoided. For that would lead to a repeat of what occurred in Lebanon in its long civil war but with potentially far more devastating consequences.
from (author unknown)