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Opinion | Crisis in Syria: The Shadow of Sectarianism and Moscow's Stake

by RASHA ELASS

31 Dec 2011 16:20Comments
russia-syria-420-122211041418.jpgWho will dare mount up and hound the Russians?

[ opinion ] The Arab League's observer mission to Syria has been a disappointment, but that should come as no surprise. After all, look who leads it -- Mustafa Dabi, the head of Sudanese intelligence and a leading supporter of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. If the mission had any integrity, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad probably would not have allowed it inside the country.

Let's face it. Assad has been acting with impunity while biding his time and hiding behind the veto power of his patron state, Russia. The reason for Moscow's unequivocal support of Assad is rarely mentioned in the media. Russia has a naval base in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus, and according to some military analysts it also bolsters a number of unpublicized missile and other military installations around the country. Syria has been a client state since the Cold War, and visitors to Syria will tell you about the Soviet-era hangover in much of the country's architecture and approach to the outside world.

If the global community wants to see a change in Syria, it should focus pressure on Russia. And not just in half-hearted negotiations over what rhetoric to employ against Syria in the U.N. Security Council, as took place over the past month, but with real diplomatic force. On the grassroots level, organizers should also call for demonstrations and sit-ins in front of Russian embassies around the world. It will take a lot to make Russia blush over human rights violations in Syria, but in the absence of Western intervention or a NATO strike, there may be no better solution.

The West lacks the political will to help the Syrian opposition with a NATO action similar to the one in Libya. And perhaps this is a blessing, considering the fact that thousands of unreported civilian casualties might have been incurred as a result. Many Syrians cry with relief that, unlike Libya, their country has no oil and therefore will not prompt an expensive intervention that Syria could not reimburse.

Nor are Syria's Arab neighbors willing to pressure Assad beyond a certain point. Iraq, already flirting with its Persian neighbor, seems immune to the Iranophobia that afflicts some other Arab countries. It has refused to enforce the Arab League's sanctions against Syria and remains friendly with Assad. Jordan, too, has refused to join in, citing the grave consequences to Jordanian businesses if trade were to be disrupted between the two countries.

Meanwhile, at least 35 protesters have been shot dead by security forces across Syria despite the observer mission's presence. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in protest, enduring, according to the opposition, tear gas and the newly introduced "nail bomb." Yet the best the Russians can do is to call the mission "reassuring."

Particularly troubling are the anecdotes of horrendous violence that are starting to emerge. Though difficult to verify independently, there are reports of sectarian bloodshed, rape, abduction, even beheadings, which evoke the eerie beginning of Iraq's bloody civil war. Many Syrians admirably insist that "all Syrians are one people," that their country can and will rise above sectarianism. But quietly, many fear that Syria will not be able to avoid the sectarian violence that has plagued its eastern neighbor Iraq and, for decades, its neighbor to the west, Lebanon.

If the status quo continues, Syria may very well be headed in that direction. The opposition will acquire arms. Many of its supporters already have. Syrian security forces who, thanks to the Russians, are not under an arms embargo will continue to escalate the conflict. And so the vicious circle will turn, and more and more Syrians will be killed.

The United States missed many opportunities to become a major player in this arena. Maybe this is because it rendered itself irrelevant by disengaging from Syria completely during the Bush administration, and barely reengaging during the Obama administration. Or maybe because it was slow to align itself with the opposition in Egypt. Yet it was swift and ultimately successful in pushing for change in Libya. Syria is not such a simple case. And neither the West nor the Syrian opposition want military intervention.

Maybe Barack Obama can exert some influence on Moscow behind closed doors. Maybe it is at last time to hound the Russians.

Views are the author's own.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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