By Patricia H. Kushlis
Standing on principle is rarely a good place to find one's feet in the shifting world of international politics - if that’s the reason the Russian government continues to behave as it does with respect to its apparent unflinching support for the Assad regime in Damascus.
True, Vladimir Putin’s view of governance has little to do with “by the people, for the people and of the people” but continued support for an unpopular Middle Eastern despot fighting a 16 month long bloody civil war against his own people is unlikely to win friends or influence the Arab Street which, as has been shown over the past two years - thanks to Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, the Internet and international satellite communications – actually does matter.
Is access to Tartus, Russia’s sole naval refueling and repair station on the Mediterranean, all that crucial for the Russians? If so and if I were an advisor to the Kremlin and wanted to keep that base come hell or high water, I’d be hedging my political bets. Access to the Mediterranean’s warm water ports have been long standing Russian – think Tsarist – policy.
But, I’d also look elsewhere for an alternative – apparently Cyprus is one possibility – and I’d stop indignantly shouting from the roof tops and in the UN Security Council my righteous vocal and political allegiance to Assad. Who knows, some of today’s rebels just might come to lead a successor regime in the weeks, months or even years to come. Chances are they won’t be Alawites either so I’d make peace with the majority Sunni community sooner rather than later.
New leaders will emerge from somewhere within Syria. They often are found among the leaders of a rebellion whether the fight they wage is hot, cold or – as in the case of Syria – both.
The first thing I’d do is try to get to know these people and assess their capabilities and proclivities. Playing footsie with Assad is not exactly the best way to make such determinations.
Yes, I know we’re told that the Syrian opposition is divided and feuding amongst itself but, wait a minute, isn’t that what we were told about the Libyan opposition just last spring? Before, that is, its disparate parts managed to pull together and bring the Kaddafi regime to its ignominious end – albeit with Gulf money and Western air power, intelligence and training behind them.
Besides, since the Syrian military machine runs on Russian arms, if I were Putin, I’d want to see those military hardware sales continue – not lose the market to Western suppliers waiting in the wings bearing sweetheart deals.
It’s very clear that no one in the West – save a few right wing neocons caught up in their own hubris - wants to send in the troops or airplanes to aid the Syrian rebels. Syria’s location places it in a very different geopolitical sphere than Libya’s so Russian fears of a warmed-over Libyan-style western strategy should be seen as a sign of narrow thinking and consigned to the dust bin.
Turkey – NATO’s frontline member – has had it with Assad but I haven’t seen Turkish generals leading expeditionary forces across their southern border although the Turks do support refugee camps on their side and defecting members of the Syrian military including high ranking ones are making the trek to them.
The latest military defector, Manaf Tlass, is a Brigadier General from Assad’s inner circle who according to the French will join his father in France. Or in a case last week, a Syrian pilot who flew his fighter jet across the border and landed in Jordan before asking for asylum.
The shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance plane in international airspace last week and then claiming that Syrian gunners had mistaken it for Israeli is like living in an alternate universe. Besides, so what if the plane had been Israeli?
One unarmed 4-F Phantom does not a bomber squadron or coordinated air attack make – even if the plane were on anything more than a training mission as the Turks claimed. Surely if either Turkey or Israel had decided to launch an air war against the Syrians – they would have used far more sophisticated equipment in a far more organized fashion. Both are certainly capable of that.
Ellen Barry, veteran New York Times Moscow correspondent, wrote on Thursday that Russia’s Middle East experts had been Soviet trained and suspicious of the power of the Arab street. That also means they’re likely suspicious of western intentions although she doesn’t explicitly say so. Vladimir Putin certainly comes from that school. Problem is instead of attempting to resist what is likely to be historically inevitable – it would be far more in Russia’s interest to stop backing a loser – or at the very least dampen down the rhetoric and stay neutral.