Russians See Syria Deadlock Persisting
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Tuesday, June 19, 2012
The suspension of the UN monitors’ operations in Syria last week reflects the intensity of the deadlock in which both the international community and the local players are caught up amid the mounting violence. With neither the Security Council, nor the West on its own, able to take action without Russia, the observers sought their own way of signalling to both sides – the regime and its armed opponents – to stop targeting them.
The West and Russia are poles apart. The one thing they outwardly agree on – implementation of UN Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s plan – they lack the capacity to secure compliance with. They support the plan, but see no way of implementing it given their divergent attitudes to President Bashar al-Assad.
The West envisages no solution without Assad being compelled to step down, whether voluntarily or by force. The Russians want a political settlement with Assad, not at his expense or by his being sidelined. Both sides appreciate that Annan’s plan has failed, but do not declare it dead as they do not yet have an alternative to it.
The Annan plan may have placed Syria in the hands of the Security Council, but it hasn’t made the Council more capable of taking decisions.
This deadlock is likely to persist, perhaps for months, with no solution in sight to the Syrian crisis amid the violence sought by both of the warring parties.
Lebanese officials who recently visited Moscow were left in no doubt that Russia is adamant in its position of support for the Syrian president’s regime and its determination to prevent his forcible overthrow.
They note that Russia is taking a business-as-usual approach to fulfilling its military contracts with the Syrian government, openly disregarding Western sanctions against the regime. Moscow not only dismisses the sanctions as inapplicable to it, but trumpets its determination to continue implementing agreements concluded by the two countries.
The Russians also make no secret of the fact that there is full coordination between them and Damascus in dealing with developments and the challenges faced by the regime, especially those posed by the armed groups that receive unconditional flows of foreign funds and weapons. Russian officials do not claim to be unaware of the mounting violence and the escalation of security actions, which the regime deems to be legitimate self-defense. But contrary to earlier impressions, Russia is neither surprised by the violence nor does it feel compromised by its escalation. It accepts that the regime is countering Arab and Western intervention in support of its armed opponents.
That intervention is expected to increase, amid attempts to expand the religious, social and ideological base of the foreign-backed Syrian opposition. The appointment of a Kurd to replace Burhan Ghalyoun as head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) was seen in Moscow as a bid to bring the Kurdish factor into the fray, and turn the country’s Kurds against Assad – after he granted them citizenship a few months into the crisis, entitling them to long-denied rights.
Some Russian officials suspect that President Vladimir Putin’s stance on Syria is part of the reason why street protests and opposition moves against him have recently been encouraged. But they stress that Russia’s policy – reiterating support for Assad, while calling for an international conference on Syria – is driven by considerations of direct self-interest, especially in light of the West’s duplicity in Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Russian officials aver that there will be no repeat of any of these countries’ experiences in Syria, either through the Security Council or outside it.
Moscow is also confident of the internal cohesion of both Assad’s regime and the Syrian army, which it sees as the former’s ultimate protector and safeguard, preventing its collapse or the forcible overthrow of the president. It justifies its defense of Assad by arguing that he continues to enjoy widespread popularity in the country, and that this sustains both his control of the army and its loyalty to him.
Despite the solidity of their support, the Russians are well aware of the changes that have been taking place in Syria over the course of the past 16 months and have become most apparent in the last three months.
The most striking of these is the Syrian army’s loss of control over sizeable parts of the rural hinterlands of major cities, including Damascus, Homs, Idlib and Hama. These are large areas, in some cases extending to the country’s eastern and northern borders, where armed insurrection and attacks have been stepped up by Salafi groups, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Muslim Brotherhood, other opposition fighters and/or armed criminal gangs.
While these rural areas are no longer under effective state sovereignty, they do not pose a direct and pressing threat to the regime as such. What they do provide is a base for mounting attacks on the army and bombings in small provincial towns, aimed at wearing it out and enabling the armed opposition to establish footholds in them. Government offices have been targeted, and records and documents destroyed. In many such places, the streets are said to be controlled the regime by day and the gunmen by night.
The protest demonstrations that featured in the early months of the unrest, and were characterized by the opposition as a “revolution” against the regime, have meanwhile largely ceased. They are mostly confined to small gatherings in small and remote villages, which are staged daily, and whose scale is exaggerated by the media. This reflects the transition in Syria from a split over the regime, to a fight for power.
The regime has maintained its control over Damascus and the provincial capitals and other major towns in the insurgent areas, including Al-Reqqa, Al-Qamishli, Deraa, Tartous, and Latakia, with the partial exception of Homs. Hama has been partly marginalized by destruction and flight. By making a priority of holding on to the big towns, the regime asserted the state’s authority over them and enabled the continued functioning both of local administration, such as ministries and provincial governors’ offices, and the army and security forces. With residents fearful of the spread of anarchy, violence, looting and murder, the regime does not lack wide public support in these cities.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.