Duncan Hamilton: Compromise with Russia preferable to Syrian alternative

THE stories from survivors of the shocking massacres in Qubair, Houla and Homs open the eyes of the world to an almost unimaginable hell. The slaughter of innocent people, many of them women and children, reveals a barbaric Syrian regime which will stop at nothing to maintain its position. That the killing continues in spite of the false promises given to Kofi Annan simply exacerbates the outrage. It also clarifies that President Assad cannot be part of the solution. His actions demand that, sooner or later, his regime must fall before any semblance of order or peace can be envisaged.

But what role now for an international community which has failed to stop the killing? In recent months, the inherent weakness of the United Nations has once again been horribly exposed. Introducing 300 unarmed UN observers to a conflict which has claimed 9,000 lives since March 2011 may have been all that was possible, but it was always insufficient. That impotence was never better demonstrated than in the first attempt to inspect the site of the massacre in Qubair. Shots were fired at the UN troops by a Syrian regime determined to obstruct investigation. Despite the observers finally making it to the scene, Assad’s contempt for the international community and the rule of law is now absolutely unmistakable.

But if we can’t go in, and we can’t stay out, what next?

We can’t invade. Not only would that be politically impossible given the united front of China and Russia in promising to veto such action at the UN but militarily it would be a nightmare. The sectarian faultlines in Syria run across the region. The conflicting involvement of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and a host of other regional interests surely make a decisive military intervention beyond reach. Moreover, if the lesson of Iraq is anything, it is surely that we need to have a ready alternative. In truth, the Syrian opposition groups remain disparate and localised rather than being a unified alternative government.

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Equally, arming the opposition is problematic. A proxy war where we are content to throw weapons into an unknown political cauldron is mindless. Who gets the weapons? Which “winners” are we backing in this fractured conflict? What if Assad is toppled and then the various factions descend into internal warfare? What if that confusion simply aids the destabilising of the region or helps to grow Iranian influence still further?

Which means that the hopelessly inadequate six-point plan of Kofi Annan is about all there is. It is modest enough. It seeks to do little more than avoid civil war. That, however, is probably the best we can hope for. So how do we deliver it?

The call from the Arab League to invoke Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter has been supported by the UN and the US. Chapter 7 outlines the options open to the Security Council (including military force) in response to threats to international peace. The US remains focused on economic sanctions (and with Assad having spent vast amounts of his foreign currency reserve on the conflict so far, that matters) but the fact that a coalition is emerging for a tougher line is slow but important work.

The big problem remains Russia. The Russian foreign minister articulated his government’s position thus: “There will be no mandate for foreign intervention. I guarantee it.”

That intransigence has been bolstered by the election of President Putin back into a position where he controls foreign policy. As such, he is aggressively promoting the Russian interests in Syria (the naval base at Tartus providing access to the Mediterranean) and the Syrian arms deals. Moreover, both the Russians and Chinese apparently want to teach the Security Council a lesson over what they see as the inappropriate expansion of a previous UN resolution over Libya to effect regime change.

But within that ruthless promotion of Russian national self-interest may be the seeds of a potential solution. It seems an obvious next step to do a deal with Russia to preserve some or all of its strategic interests in the region in return for the exercise of vital Russian influence to effect regime change. That is the very stuff of international diplomacy. Will it stick in the throat that Russia has effectively held the UN to ransom over Syria? Of course, but in the absence of any alternative to a bloody civil war, it’s a deal worth doing.

In return, the Russians would have to work to deliver regime change, the removal of Assad and genuine power-sharing. It would also require agreement on the ordered participation of regional interests (probably including Iran) to ensure that the new government could survive. That’s a stretch, but the collaboration between the Arab League, the EU, the UN and bodies like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation surely give hope it is possible.

None of this is pretty, all of it involves uncomfortable compromise. But don’t we owe it to the innocent civilians of Syria to try? «