With the flood of revolutions across the Middle East, it can be easy to forget that in Syria there is still widespread terror as rebels fight a dictator who has support abroad. As of April 22nd, 2012, the death toll for civilians killed during the fighting was more than 10,000. Syrian citizens are overwhelmed by a corrupt family-owned government, a brutally loyal military, and the international protection of its largest trading and military partner: Russia.
It may still be possible to find peace in the Syrian Crisis, but that peace hinges on two very important points: that the international communities ratchet up the pressure on the Assad regime’s brutal civil repression and that Russia, Syria’s patriarchal ally, be willing to play ball.
Today, the dictatorship that controls in Syria’s government continues to bomb many rebel-controlled cities including the city of Homs, near the Mediterranean Sea and north of Lebanon, and the Syrian capitol of Damascus. The government, led by a young London-educated dictator Bashar Al-Assad, whose family has controlled the nation since 1934, argues that he is simply cracking down on foreign terrorists looking to overthrow the regime. Human rights activists argue that the government is desperately trying to put down a popular revolution.
Unlike the situation in Libya last year, Syria’s leader has friends. Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi had little international support and once his violent strategy became public he was quickly condemned by the United Nations, isolated by the U.S., and overrun by NATO. This is not what’s happening in Syria. Even though the issue has been under the world’s eyes for a little more than a year, the government there is supported by Russia, one of five UN Security Council members and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, who has blocked any effective attempt to get the country to cooperate. It’s relatively easy to condemn a loud North African dictator but it’s not the same in Damascus where the country’s big brother has enough nuclear weapons and worldwide influential muscle to slow international outrage to a crawl.
To be clear, Russia is not a heartless bully that covers for its friends, it is taking a careful step to protect its vital interests. Just like the United States’s presence protects Israel from its zealous neighbors, so too does Russia doggedly protect the huge military investments it has spent on Iran and Syria. Specifically, Russia’s military has only one port in the Mediterranean Sea and it is in Syria. By overthrowing the government that is in control, Russia’s base would most likely be lost and its ability to maintain a fleet in southern Europe and the Middle East would evaporate. This means that Russia could not exercise power in the Middle East anymore and that would hurt its economy and its potential military presence. In essence, Russia would get kicked out of the sandbox by the U.S. and its friends, leaving Russia without any say in this increasingly important region’s destiny.
The countries surrounding Syria are either in revolutionary crisis or under U.S. influence. To maintain its control and its only foothold in the Middle East, Russia supports Iran, Lebanon, and Syria with military support and economic investment. Russia knows that no matter how awful your friends are, having some bad friends is better than having no friends, so it has delayed all actions against its ally in the hope that with enough time the al-Assad government can clean up any revolution and crush any changes before the global community can react.
This looks more unlikely with each passing day.
After months of cruel fighting and violence, reports shared across the world by protestors who have used YouTube and journalists who have snuck into the country have changed the international whimpers and whispers into direct condemnation by the UN and a promise to fund the rebels by the “Friends of Syria,” a coalition of nations and Syrian refugees. Most recently, President Obama has frozen any government financial assets in U.S. banks and warned that not only has al-Assad lost legitimacy, but that any supporters of the al-Assad regime have put faith in “a losing bet.”
Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the UN, has been in the country for weeks negotiating a truce and bringing in 300 “advisers” to maintain watch over a cease-fire that doesn’t exist and is seen as completely ineffective. The delays can only work for so long.
Russia’s interest in the area is much more long-term than the life of one dictator and Russia’s leadership knows that the strength of its political firewall is dwindling. Russian leadership does not care about the life of Bashar al-Assad, it cares about keeping things the same.
Early predictions say that Russia will cave to pressure from the U.S. and its allies, but only after personally arranging the peace process and ensuring that its interests are safe within the country. The delays will work long enough to keep the UN away from direct military intervention as long as al-Assad is replaced but if Russia does not cooperate soon, the international community will act without it.
The clock is ticking for Russia, Syria’s dictator al-Assad, and the rebels that desperately cling to every second they continue to live. The U.S. at least, is waiting for Russia’s time to run out.