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Syria’s known unknowns

by Mark Galeotti at 14/06/2012 20:45

Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is a vicious dictatorship, willing to use the most ruthless and bloody tactics to retain power. The heart cannot but want to see his whole gang deposed and forced to answer for their murders – which is why it is so deeply, miserably depressing that the head must counsel caution. In this case, Moscow’s reluctance to sanction international intervention may prove wiser than the West’s moral outrage.

There have been some especially foolish claims that Moscow’s position reflects President Vladimir Putin’s personal affinity for Assad, but there is little evidence of any enthusiasm for him. Indeed, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explicitly noted that Russia “will only be happy” if “the Syrians agree between each other” that Assad must go.

To be sure, there is both selfinterest and pique in Moscow’s position. It has a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus and Damascus remains a steady buyer of Russian weapons. Perhaps more important is that Moscow feels duped over Libya. Having agreed to support a relatively limited UN resolution on protecting civilians, it saw the West and its Arab allies using that to launch a wider campaign to unseat Gaddafi.

Libya also highlights the more positive basis for Russian intransigence. In Gaddafi’s place is an unstable and uncertain government with little control over a myriad of tribal militias. As in Afghanistan and Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, regime change has tended to breed instability, Islamic extremism and conflict.

There is no clear and legitimate alternative political force in Syria and the identity, ideology and intent of the rebel Free Syrian Army is unclear. Meanwhile, the Syrian military and security elite still appear relatively disciplined and united. Toppling Assad and his Alawite allies will not be easy – even with Western airpower.

Moscow’s concern is that intervention could accelerate and exacerbate a slide into civil war, creating a new cauldron of chaos right on Israel’s doorstep. Al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri sees Syria as a great opportunity, and is encouraging his fighters to infiltrate the country.

The United States has accused Russia of escalating the war by selling Assad helicopter gunships. These are actually old Syrian helicopters being returned after maintenance. Besides, the rebels are being armed by the Gulf States (including Bahrain – which killed almost 100 people cracking down on its own “Arab Spring”).

Caricaturing Moscow’s position, while supporting the rebels, does nothing to encourage the Kremlin to be more flexible. Russia is not so much a friend of Assad’s as worried about the “known unknown” that would follow his ouster. The Kremlin might well favor gradual reform, but there seems little scope for that now.

The irony is that Russia, with its network of advisers and technical personnel in the Syrian military and security apparatus, is well placed to create a reform coalition, and even encourage Assad to step into safe retirement if he won’t reform.

But fomenting civil war against Assad is not necessarily in the best interests of the Syrian people. It forces the elite to rally together, and raises the prospect of anarchy and sectarian and jihadist violence in its stead, something Moscow ironically seems to understand better than Washington. 

Mark Galeotti (Twitter: @markgaleotti) is Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. His blog, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” can be read at http://inmoscowsshadows. wordpress.com. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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