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Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Syria Sliding into Civil War

Introduced by Vladimir Frolov Russia Profile 01/20/2012

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Dick Krickus

As opposition protests intensify in Syria and with Bashar al-Assad's government losing touch with reality, Syria is sliding into a protracted conflict that could end up as a full-scale civil war.
Is the al-Assad regime doomed? Will it collapse under attacks from the opposition, acting perhaps with clandestine Western aide? Does Russia have the right kind of policy for Syria now? Should Russia join or oppose the West in Syria? Should Russia support the Syrian opposition? How would the potential collapse of Assad's regime impact the internal developments in Russia, particularly the burgeoning anti-Putin movement in Russia's major cities?

The failure of the Arab League mission last weak to end violence and the Syrian government's continued attempts to stomp out the rebellion in major cities such as Homs and Hama have resulted in the government losing control over large chunks of Syria, with its authority ebbing even in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, which has been largely cordoned off by police and army checkpoints.

There are now reports of sectarian strife and even cleansing of formerly mixed neighborhoods in the opposition-controlled Homs, which for Syria, home to a diverse mix of religions and ethnic groups, might mean a slide toward disintegration.

While the West has been pushing for tougher sanctions on Syria's government, Russia has staunchly opposed any moves toward direct international involvement in the internal conflict, and has made it clear that it would veto any attempts to authorize the use of force against the Syrian government. Russia has also been endorsing the official Syrian line of the opposition's terrorist activities and has even sent a carrier battle group for refueling in a Syrian port and is holding armed exercises in adjacent waters.

The Syrian opposition has criticized Russia's support for the al-Assad regime and even threatened economic retaliation against Russian business interests there should it seize power. Moscow has a very lucrative arms trade with Syria and has sold advanced weapons, including anti-ship and air-defense missiles, to Damascus.

Is the al-Assad regime doomed? Will it collapse under attacks from the opposition, acting perhaps with clandestine Western aide? Will Syria survive as a state, or will it split into several states along religious and ethnic lines? What would other regional players – Israel, Turkey and Iran – do if Syria collapsed? Does Russia have the right kind of policy for Syria now? Should Russia join or oppose the West in Syria? Should Russia support the Syrian opposition (attempts at dialogue have taken place, but have not resulted in Russia's support for the anti-Assad movement)? How would the potential collapse of Assad's regime impact the internal developments in Russia, particularly the burgeoning anti-Putin movement in Russia's major cities?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Like Iran, but in a different form, Syria presents a very difficult challenge to the global community. In the case of Syria, there is an insurgency, apparently enjoying some foreign assistance, which is deliberately aiming to remove Bashar al-Assad from power. The latest news on this subject indicates that this insurgency will not even join an Assad-led government by accepting the offer of ministerial posts. It is not at all definite that the West assists this insurgency – there are many other regional actors (including Iran, Turkey, the international Muslim Brotherhood and others) which have very strong desires for regime change or instability in Syria.

There is considerable interventionist rhetoric regarding Syria. However, the real price for such an intervention, in terms of personnel, armaments and logistics, is very high; much higher than for Libya (where Western intervention was mainly air support for the insurgents) and much closer in effort and duration to the recent American involvement in Iraq (eight years, many billions of dollars and many thousands of military casualties). Therefore, the transition from rhetoric to real action may be even secretly undesirable. To move from saber rattling to saber slashing in Syria may not be a viable gambit. In a perverse way, Russia may be doing the West a favor by its efforts to prevent a Western intervention, which would be prohibitively costly and Pyrrhic for the West.

Pragmatically, any kind of social and political destabilization in Syria, its disintegration or regime change would not be in the long-term interests of anyone in the region. A stable Syria, resisting religious extremist influences, is a known quantity and can be accounted properly in the intricate flux of Middle Eastern geopolitics. An unstable and fragmented Syria will be much more difficult to deal with.

There are considerable differences between Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad, age being a very important factor. The Libyan was nearing the end of his lifespan and a post-mortem transition conflict in Libya was inevitable in the near future; in Syria, under stable political circumstances, one can expect executive continuity for several critical decades.

Promoting Syrian regime change for the sake of misplaced democratic ideals is utopianism. As can be seen one year after the much-publicized “Arab Spring,” the Arab revolutions of 2011 have produced the rise of fundamentalist extremism and civil wars, which may expand to become overt religious warfare with dire challenges to the global community. The expectation for democratization of dictatorial regimes in the region is sentimental and self-delusional.

It is not clear whether Russia’s policies regarding Syria are formed according to paradigms of modern national interests, or just follow the praxis of the Soviet Union, which was driven exclusively by an overriding ideological goal to sustain socialist regimes worldwide, even at great and unjustified costs to the Soviet Union itself. There is a persuasive argument that this internationalist commitment to socialism everywhere in the world (Cuba, Mozambique, Somalia, Poland, etc.) eventually bankrupted the Soviet Union politically and materially.

To propose a link between the Syrian political crisis and a possible disruption in the leadership there with the episodic protests in Russia seems naïve and wishful. One might as well connect the activities of Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov with the current presidential election processes in America. The protests in Russia remain marginal and lacking in political seriousness; they resemble the tantrums of spoiled children who want to change the rules of the game so that they can win – regardless of realities. The Syrian situation is quite different from Russia’s political tantrums by blog-surfing, mink coat wearing celebrity “frondeurs.”

Dick Krickus, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC

A negotiated settlement to the brutal oppression of peaceful protestors in Syria is nowhere in sight, and international observers fear we are witnessing the early signs of a protracted civil war. The outcome remains unclear, but it will have a profound impact on the region in general and the Shia-Sunni competition in particular. It could spawn communal fighting in Lebanon, spark a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, and complicate the international community’s campaign to find a resolution to its conflict with Iran over the latter’s drive for nuclear weapons. Even conflict management experts in the international community seem to have no recommendations that offer hope of finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.

It is the conviction of independent commentators that Bashar al-Assad is responsible for this dismal state of affairs. Rather than negotiate with peaceful opponents, he has decided to crush them; today an estimated 5,000 people have been killed, most of them innocent civilians. What is more, to support his regime he has exploited fears among Christians as well as his fellow Alawites, warning them that if the Sunnis prevail, members of minority groups will be oppressed. According to some analysts, the majority Sunni population now sees these minority groups as enemy collaborators and that perception does not bode well for communal harmony in a post-Assad Syria.

As a consequence of Assad’s self-destructive policies, his regime has become isolated, earning him the enmity of the Arab League, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and, most important of all, the Sunni Arab Street. Amr Mousssa, the former head of the Arab League, says that it might consider armed intervention to terminate the crisis.

Assad has received both material and moral support from the Mullahs in Iran, who see his demise as a direct threat to their security (China’s curtailing oil imports from Iran and Western economic sanctions are causing them serious problems). Some Western observers believe they have convinced him to follow tactics that crushed the “Green Revolution” in Iran – shoot and beat the democratic protesters, including women and children.

Turning to the question of Russia, it is instructive to compare Kremlin-controlled TV coverage with that of Al-Jazeera. Viewers of the English-language RT television channel find it pretty much replicates the line observed on official Syrian TV. Outsiders – Americans, Israelis and Saudis – are behind the violence, not Syrians. On RT, “independent” commentators depict events in Syria that clash with those of most outside observers on other networks.

Al Jazeera’s reporting, in turn – the most comprehensive coverage of events in the Greater Middle East by any competitor, Russian or Western – places blame for the abysmal situation in Syria on Assad. Time and again victims of his human rights violations testify to the atrocities that his agents have committed while disputing bogus claims that foreigners are responsible for the mayhem in Syria.

Russia’s refusal to support UN-sponsored sanctions to compel Assad to settle the crisis and reports that it has shipped 60 tons of weaponry to Syria have not won the Kremlin many friends in the Sunni community (worldwide, they represent the vast majority of Muslims in the Islamic world).

On the basis of Moscow’s position and its reluctance to sanction Iran, Kremlin insiders must ponder whether or not the majority of Sunni members of the global Islamic community see them as taking sides in favor of the Shiites, in what some deem a civil war within Islam.

That said, there are reports that many Syrians are turning their enmity toward the West for its reluctance to intervene in the crisis, just as in Libya. Out of desperation they are turning to Islamists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical Salafist groups.

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