Syrian Liberation: All Roads Lead Through Damascus

One year since the civil unrest in Syria started to gain momentum, and the violence in the country shows no sign of abating. The most recent foreign estimates of casualties indicate at least 4,500 killed in the past 12 months, although by the end of February that figure was thought to be closer to 5,000.

As the Syrian government and the opposition, including those opposed to the ruling Ba’ath Party and the Assad family, are unable to resolve their differences, much depends on what new peace initiatives are on offer from the international community, in particular the UN and the Arab League.

Earlier last month the UN Security Council met to consider another Syria resolution (following an earlier veto last October by both Russia and China.) This time the call, backed by Washington and its allies, was for President Bashar al-Assad to step down — along with backing for an Arab Peace Plan. India voted for the resolution, but moderated the explicit references to Assad’s departure. Pakistan also voted for the resolution, conveniently forgetting the Syrian regime’s honourable and loyal support of the Bhutto family during the long years of military dictatorship in Islamabad.

Russia and China’s decision to throw their joint weight behind Assad by not voting for the Security Council resolution led to predictably furious reactions from the US and Britain, with both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Secretary William Hague accusing Moscow and Beijing of failing to stop further bloodshed.

The recriminations have continued against the backdrop of subsequent visits to Damascus by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese deputy foreign minister Zhai Jun. The all-important question that still remains is why these two Asian superpowers feel it is in their national interest to oppose sanctions against the Assad regime.

For the Russians, Assad is both a military and political ally. Syria’s port city of Tartus houses Russia’s only naval base in the region — first established in the early 1970s — with its capabilities significantly upgraded in recent years. Little wonder that the Kremlin values this Mediterranean base, if only to facilitate future arms deals and ensure a role in any forthcoming Middle East peace negotiations.

Equally important in Moscow’s thinking is the knock-on effect and impact of US support for countries in Russia’s traditional zone of influence. The election of pro-West leaders in countries like Georgia and Ukraine, and US military support for the Georgian government, soured relations between Washington and the Putin/Medvedev regime in Moscow. Any shared feeling of vulnerability after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US soon evaporated.

What remains now is Moscow’s perception of what it sees as the West’s meddling in Russia’s back garden. The Kremlin’s fear is that more countries succumbing to what is described as the cloak of democracy will simply pave the way for the further isolation of Moscow and ignite even more restlessness among the Russian masses.

As Sir Tony Brenton, a former British Ambassador to Moscow, recently observed, the Russians ‘view Western support for human rights as no more than cynical cover for the expansion of influence.

China, though, is a different matter, although more straightforward to understand. This Asian economic giant is often itself criticised for its long history of human rights violations, ranging from the deaths of 12 million Tibetans opposed to China’s takeover of their country to the estimated 30 million Chinese who died during forced collectivisation.

It is unlikely that any UN sanctions could ever be implemented against China, but Beijing remains nervous of the international community’s readiness to intervene and democratize regimes across the globe. The Chinese are against interventions of any kind, underlined by their sharp rejection of any potential action against Iran. So Beijing’s objection to the UN resolution on Syria is hardly surprising.

Whatever the merits and motives of Russia and China’s support for Assad, there are equally compelling questions to be asked about how the West has responded to the regime in Damascus. Assad’s gross betrayal of human rights speaks for itself and has been condemned in the strongest terms. His adversaries in the Free Syrian Army can expect a sympathetic hearing in London and Washington as they shop around for body armour, night vision goggles and medical equipment to withstand more attacks.

But Syria is also a key ally of Iran and in the larger Middle East picture it is Tehran’s nuclear ambitions that most concern policy-makers in Washington and other Western capitals.

Russia and China in particular are keen to secure future oil supplies from a friendly Iranian regime. They are fearful that the road to Tehran runs through Damascus and that the international response to the Syrian crisis may be a dress rehearsal for what could happen with Iran.

A weakened and leaderless Syria, post-Assad, dependent on handouts from the West would be an undoubted strategic setback for Iran. But the struggle for Syria also serves as a warning to the mullahs in Tehran about what awaits them if they refuse to back down from trying to transform their country into the world’s newest nuclear weapons state.

Article by Ankur