Syrian rebels must accommodate Russia to end the civil war

Alexander Pannett 12.30pm 

The civil war in Syria has entered a new chapter of vicious proportions. In the past week a government plane and helicopter have been shot down and suicide bombs have erupted through the capital, Damascus. The rebels have now acquired heavy weaponry and surface-to-air missiles, underlining their growing proficiency and power.

Worryingly for the West, foreign Jihadists have been reported amongst the rebel ranks, including such al-Qaeda linked groups as the Al Nusrah Front. Fourteen of these groups based in the city of Aleppo recently rejected the newly formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Oppositional forces, instead calling for an Islamic State. In a country with vast stores of biological and chemical weaponry, the threat of Islamists gaining control of such dangerous reservoirs is particularly chilling.

These developments re-affirm the importance of the recent establishment of the National Coalition as the political leadership of the rebellion. It offers hope that a national government can be formed after Assad’s fall that will represent all the disparate elements of the rebellion and prevent Syria fracturing into chaos.

However, the Assad regime’s demise is far from certain. As each day goes by, Syria falls more and more apart as mounting atrocities splinter societies and allow extremist elements to gain support. Now that there is an established opposition government, the West must send arms and funds to secular rebel groups that support the National Coalition. But it must and can do more to speed the downfall of Assad. The quickest way to achieve this goal is to use old-fashioned realpolitik to both cut away Assad’s international support and to offer him a personal exit and sanctuary.

The major supporter of Assad that is preventing any action by the UN Security Council is Russia. I have written before about why Russia supports Assad and it is one reason above all others, Tartus. The Russian naval base at Tartus on the Syrian coast grants the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean and influence over the vital water-ways that lead to the strategically important Middle East. The West must press the National Coalition to assure Russia that it will retain its naval base after the fall of the Assad regime. This will encourage Russia to allow a UN mandate to impose no-fly zones in Syria.

For their part, the Russians are worried about direct military intervention in Syria, citing the sovereignty of nation states to resolve domestic disputes. This is a smoke-screen dilemma that hides Russia’s anxiety about losing influence in the Middle East to the US. These fears can be allayed by the West’s encouragement of the National Coalition to announce that palatable representatives of the Assad regime will have a place in the future of Syria. The National Coalition must also emphasise that minorities will be protected and could even gain autonomy.

Russia is also concerned about the advent of Jihadist elements amongst the rebels. The West also shares these security concerns. It should therefore share intelligence with Russia in order to isolate these extremist elements. It is in Russia’s interests as much as the West to ensure that the post-Assad regime is secular and not extremist. Russia must be encouraged to see that the National Coalition is an answer to its concerns, not an enemy to its interests.

Finally, the West should allow Assad a sanctuary to encourage him to end the fighting. Despite being a betrayal of the rights of the victims of his atrocities, if he is denied escape he will resist until the last and will likely resort to chemical and biological weapons as he becomes more desperate. For this Russia could be approached to facilitate Assad’s safety. He will be more likely to respond to assurances from such a powerful protector. Allowing Assad to avoid immediate punishment may be a distasteful solution but it will save many lives and Syria from further ruin if it brings the war to a swifter end. It should also be added that sanctuary offers only temporary safety, and as Mladic and other war criminals have discovered, justice not politics is a friend of time.

Civil wars erode the fabric of society that forms the basis of any functioning state. They run in negative correlation to the abstract legitimacy of a national identity. Now that the National Coalition has formed, Western support must crystallize around its secular aims. However, to achieve a quicker end, Russian interests must be consulted and accommodated. The National Coalition can isolate the Assad regime from international support if its guarantees Russian influence in post-Assad Syria. It can also end the war before extremists become too strong by granting Assad sanctuary to Russia.

Realpolitik may be an ugly solution but, at times, it saves lives.

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Russia’s Syrian hypocrisy

Alexander Pannett 10.38am

Yesterday, diplomats at the UN Security Council were engaged in a concerted attempt to pass a resolution calling for President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power, which is a key part of an Arab League plan.

This is a welcome move as bloody government reprisals against the protesters have led to more than 7,000 civilian deaths as Syria slides into civil war.

The text, however, had to be dropped due to Russian objections that it amounted to “regime change”, which was a threat to the principles of national sovereignty as protected under the UN charter.

This is contrary to the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which was recognised as a concept by all countries (Russia and China included) at the UN World Leader’s Summit in 2005.

Responsibility to Protect is a concept for intervention in a state by the international community for the prevention of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass killings and human rights violations taking place, in a country which is unwilling (or unable) to stop it. In the event of any such acts occurring, the wider international community has a collective responsibility to take whatever action is necessary to prevent it.

Both the Russians and the Chinese, whose modern history has been dominated by bloody foreign interventions, are understandably reticent about any development of liberal interventionism that protects a people from the violent abuses of its government.  Considering the poor human rights records in both these countries, it is unsurprising that they will be wary of a liberal doctrine that legitimises external interference along the grounds of human rights.

However, it is callous in the extreme for the Russians to cite the UN charter’s protection of national sovereignty as the rationale for its support for the Assad government.  Or for the Russians to justify their current intransigence with a resolution against Syria by suggesting that the UN resolution that allowed for “all necessary means” to protect the Libyan people went too far in toppling the brutal dictatorship of Gaddafi.

The Russians were quite happy to cite the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine with their invasion of Georgia in 2008 or use interventionism with their ongoing suppression of “terrorist” separatist groups in the Northern Caucuses or recent use of energy blackmail to interfere with Ukrainian elections.

The real hypocrisy of Russia lies however with the realpolitik of their global strategic ambitions.

At Tartus, Syria’s second largest port city, lies one of only two Russian naval bases outside Russia that Russian capital ships can dock at for re-supply. With the other naval base outside Russia at Sevastopol only on a 25-year lease and subject to the whims of a Ukrainian government with lukewarm relations towards Russia, Tartus is crucial to the Russians’ plans to re-establish themselves as a world military power.

The Syrian government recently agreed to transfer the naval base permanently into Russian hands and the Russians have since been pouring billions into the base to allow it to host a new Mediterranean fleet. To re-affirm Russia’s interests in Syria and its support for the Assad regime, a flotilla of Russian ships, including the Russian flagship, were deployed to the Tartus naval base in November 2011.

Without Tartus, Russia’s plans to project its power around the globe would be severely curtailed, especially in the nearby oil-rich Middle East, an area of vital strategic importance.  It is this concern that is dictating Russia’s morally bankrupt actions at the UN rather than any simulacrum of UN protections of national sovereignty.

As Aaron Ellis has pointed out on these pages, the West is currently undergoing a crisis of confidence about what it stands for in the world. While hard questions are rightly being asked about the Western economic model, we must not forget that our political and liberal values helped shape the present structure of international relations.

Our voice is needed to help prevent the oppression of the weak and dispossessed and to uphold the goals of the UN which sought to prevent massacres such as those that are occurring in Syria.

The West has certainly made terrible foreign policy errors that have resulted in the deaths of innocents. But we should not forget the far worse, dystopian machinations of those to whom our current angst would cede the leadership of the world.

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