“Heavy gunfire and shelling rattled towns in a mountain valley outside Damascus on Wednesday, as Syrian troops opened a new front in their campaign to crush rebels who have taken control of areas around the capital,” according to reports.
As the violence escalated, ambassadors to the UN Security Council met in a closed session in an effort to reach agreement on the wording of a resolution on Syria.
Russia appears to be the principal holdout against an Arab League resolution proposing what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “a negotiated, peaceful political solution to this crisis and a responsible, democratic transition in Syria.”
“If the Russians become utterly convinced that the regime is going down the drain, then the US and its allies can convince them that their best bet is going with the future,” says Wayne White, an analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former State Department policy planner.“But we’re clearly not there yet,” he adds, “so unfortunately it looks like the fighting and killing will continue.”
Members of the Syrian National Council, the exiled opposition coalition, rejected a Russian proposal to sponsor a dialog between the government and the opposition. Even if the resolution passed, Assad would probably reject it, said Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC’s president.
“Nevertheless, to have that resolution is extremely important to emphasize his lack of legitimacy,” he said.
“I appeal to Russia, which has long historical ties with the Syrian people, to prevent the Assad regime from exploiting the Russian support in order to continue its oppression,” said Ghalioun.
Russia’s attitude was ensuring the enmity of Syrians as well as the rest of the Arab world, said Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer and member of the SNC: “We want pressure, we want isolation of the regime.”
Syria may well be the last battle of the Cold War, given that Russia’s intransigence reflects an ingrained ideological hostility to democracy, writes Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and co-chair of Hoover’s Working Group on Islamism and International Order:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been emphatic that there can be no repeat of Libya. By his lights, the green light given to protect Libyan civilians had turned into a warrant for regime change.
Democracies are on a rampage, so the Russian custodians of power insist, and a line has to be drawn in defense of an autocratic cabal of nations. Russian history alternates long periods of quiescence with sudden rebellions. The Putin autocracy was taking no chances.
“That the Morocco resolution ‘calls for’ Assad to step aside is their worst example and fear,” said George Lopez, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and a sometime adviser to the United Nations. “If today it is Assad, tomorrow Putin? They worry.”
Amnesty International criticized Russia for its “unconscionable” obstruction of U.N. efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria.
“Russia bears a heavy responsibility for allowing the brutal crackdown on legitimate dissent in Syria to continue unchecked,” said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International’s U.N. representative.
But Russia isn’t the only culprit, says Ajami.
“Those ‘emerging’ powers—India, Brazil, South Africa—have shown moral obtuseness of their own and have sided with the brutal regime in Damascus,” he argues.
The analogy with Libya is false, Clinton told the UN Security Council. “Syria is a unique situation that requires its own approach, tailored to the specific circumstances occurring there,: she said. “And that is exactly what the Arab League has proposed – a path for a political transition that would preserve Syria’s unity and institutions.”
Analysts tend to support Clinton’s contention.
“Syria certainly is not Libya,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
I think whatever kind of intervention you see in Syria is something that’s going to be humanitarian in nature. It’s not going to be an invasion. It’s not going to be even necessarily something with missile strikes. It’s going to be something that involves – two ideas out there. One is a buffer zone from Turkey, along the Turkish border with Syria. And the other one is a humanitarian corridor.
The fate of the Syrian opposition could add to the democratic momentum of the Arab Spring by toppling one of the region’s most repressive regimes.
But Assad’s ouster would also have major implications for the balance of power in the region, robbing Iran of its most dependable ally and dealing a blow to the so-called axis of resistance.
“It would completely change the dynamic in the region,” one Obama administration official said Tuesday.
Tehran has provided logistical support to help suppress the protests s author of the book, “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.”
“There are certain constraints the Assad regime has that make it unable to reform its way out of this,” said Tabler. “Assad would have to undermine the very people he has to maintain order. I don’t expect it’s going to change now. I think the Iranians know that.”
At the same time, Mr. Tabler said, Mr. Assad’s control has been undermined by American and other sanctions, and the Syrian treasury is dwindling. Given the sanctions on Iran, which have handed Iranians their own economic crisis, the leaders in Tehran are unlikely to provide significant financial aid to Mr. Assad.
“Some time in the middle of the year Syria is going to run out of cash, and it will be interesting to see what happens,” Tabler said. Mr. Assad’s demise, he said, “would be the biggest blow to Iran’s influence in the region in decades.”
Chaos need not follow change, claims former UN deputy secretary-general Mark Malloch-Brown. A negotiated, peaceful transition is still feasible provided any solution respects two dynamics:
The first is Syria’s religious complexity, where a small Alawite minority has been reluctantly trusted by other minorities and the Damascus middle class to hold in check a Sunni majority. For these minorities, as for Egypt’s Copts, an unpleasant regime at least offered stability and security. The opposition must promise to stem violence through dialogue and to protect minority rights. Then it can claim to be the true guarantor of stability, whereas a violent regime is now stability’s enemy.
Second, the Security Council must heed the lessons not of Libya but of Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding together these complex and fragile nations became much harder because the US and its allies initially ignored their neighbours – which had their own interests and clients inside both. Excluded, countries such as Iran and Pakistan became forces for fragmentation and partition, rather than finding common cause in maintaining stability.