Russian President Medvedev and Syrian President Assad
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Syria: A Soviet Hangover Turned Headache
Russia inherited its Middle East presence from the Soviet Union. Is it about to lose its last ally in a newly democratised Arab world?
The Editorial of The Guardian
The uprisings in Libya and now Syria have pitched the Arab League, a body which had little relevance to conflicts raging on its doorstep, into the centre of the diplomatic arena. The league matters not merely because some of its member governments are becoming representative of their peoples for the first time in their recent history. Sunni monarchies like Saudi Arabia that are vulnerable to the very forces unseating Bashar al-Assad in Syria are also taking active steps. Granted, almost all of what the Saudis do in Syria can be seen as a way of rolling back Iran's influence. However, by pulling its members out of the Arab League observer mission and then making sure the mission is suspended, Riyadh has propelled itself into the frontline. It is no longer leading from behind.
The Arab League's activism on Syria put its general secretary, Nabil el-Araby, Egypt's former foreign minister, into an unusual position – proposing a plan to the UN which his own government has yet to endorse. It is encapsulated in a draft resolution to the UN security council which calls on Assad to step down and hand over to his deputy, who will oversee a political transition, or face further unspecified measures in 15 days' time. This has the potential to isolate Russia within a reshaped Arab world. Moscow has to address two questions as it prepares to wield its veto. First, as Assad's principal arms supplier, is it backing the loser? If so, it will lose not only the $550m deal it signed with Damascus for trainer aircraft, but the only base it has outside the former Soviet Union and a string of listening posts. The second question is more pressing: is it about to lose its last ally in a newly democratised Arab world, of which Syria will remain a vital hub whatever happens? Russia inherited its Middle East presence from the Soviet Union, but it did not gain any new friends. With Gaddafi gone and Assad on his way out, Russia stands to lose more than physical assets.
Russia could yet be assuaged by a clause explicitly ruling out the use of force. The current wording emphasises the need to resolve the crisis peacefully, but does not preclude future military action. Given what happened after the loosely worded UN resolution on Libya, which Russia let through, it has a point. But Russia is wrong to warn that the resolution will risk civil war. Continuing to back Assad, as it is doing, will propel a civil war. The sooner Assad sees he has no future – and even a watered-down resolution would help that – the sooner leading members of the regime will try to salvage something from the wreckage. The coming civil war will not guarantee the property of minority Alawites or the Sunni merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo. It will engulf them, and the score-settling in Libya will be as nothing to what takes place in Syria.
This editorial was published in The Guardian on 01/02/2012