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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