Having vetoed a United Nations Security Council bid to condemn Syria for the continuing killing of its people, Russia has taken matters into its own hands and will try to end the conflict its own way.
Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Mikhail Fradkov, its head of foreign intelligence, are scheduled to arrive in Damascus on Monday.
“The Security Council is not the only diplomatic tool on the planet,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, said on the weekend.
Russia’s relationship with Syria predates even the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the father of President Bashar al-Assad, and Moscow is well aware of the country’s sectarian divisions and strategic importance. It knows that foreign intervention or a prolonged civil war could lead to a broader conflict involving Syria’s allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both of which issued statements on Sunday that were strongly supportive of the Assad regime.
Even so, it remains an open question whether Russia can pull off a settlement.
Russia has worked behind the scenes for several weeks and announced last week that it had persuaded the al-Assad leadership to participate in informal talks with the opposition in Moscow. The goal of the talks, say Syrians with knowledge of the initiative, was to discuss the formation of a unity government and a transition to democracy – two of the planks in the Arab League initiative that was at the centre of the Security Council resolution.
But while the regime had apparently indicated its willingness to talk to the opposition, the Syrian National Council, an outside umbrella group of opponents to Mr. al-Assad rejected the idea.
The UN resolution that came to a vote on Saturday said the Security Council “fully supports” the Arab League plan that calls for Mr. al-Assad to cede powers to his vice-president and a unity government that would lead Syria to democratic elections.
With so much similarity in their objectives, why would Russia veto the UN bid?
Mr. Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow had two objections: that the resolution did not place sufficient blame for the violence on the opposition, and that it unrealistically demanded that the government withdraw its military forces to their barracks.
He told a security conference in Munich that adopting the resolution would risk “taking sides in a civil war.”
“What’s the end-game?” Mr. Lavrov demanded of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Replied Ms. Clinton: “The end-game in the absence of us acting together as the international community, I fear, is civil war.”
That was not enough, however, to persuade Russia, which argues that the model used to ease Yemen’s President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from office is the one to follow in Syria. Many Syrian critics of the regime also argue it would invite chaos to remove the al-Assad regime before a democratic transition is in place.
More than altruism motivates Moscow. Russia is keen to preserve its special relationship with a pivotal Middle East state, along with its naval installation at the Syrian port of Tartus, the Russian fleet’s only base in the Mediterranean.
As well, it’s believed that Russian leaders harbour considerable resentment over what they believe was deception in the manner in which the Security Council resolution concerning Libya was implemented. Russia had abstained from voting when that resolution was decided, apparently believing that NATO’s role in assisting the Libyan opposition would not involve the kind of bombing carried out against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
Hours before the UN vote on Saturday, Syrian forces carried out a deadly bombardment of a residential district in Homs. Activists said the mortar shelling that killed scores of civilians began on Friday night after Syrian army defectors attacked two military checkpoints and captured a number of soldiers. (Earlier reports that “hundreds” were killed were reportedly revised Sunday by at least one activist organization.) U.S. President Barack Obama condemned what he called “the Syrian government’s unspeakable assault against the people of Homs,” saying in a statement that Mr. al-Assad “has no right to lead Syria, and has lost all legitimacy with his people and the international community.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said, “The massacre in Homs is a crime against humanity, and those responsible will have to answer for it.”
“Europe,” Mr. Juppé said, “will again harden sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime. We will try to increase this international pressure and there will come a time when the regime will have to realize that it is completely isolated and cannot continue.”
He added that France, which has its own special relationship with Syria as a mandate power from 1923 to 1943, would “help the Syrian opposition to structure and organize itself.” The commander of rebel Syrian soldiers said in an interview with the Associated Press on Sunday that the only choice left was to oust Mr. al-Assad with military force. “There is no other road,” Colonel Riad al-Asaad said.