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Key to solving the Syrian impasse: Russia

Kader Kadem | 11:56 | 0 Comments
Turkey is preparing to host the second Friends of Syria meeting on April 1, following the first one in Tunisia, as the situation in its neighbor -- with which it shares an 877-kilometer-long border -- continues to be in complete “deadlock.” Just like the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people, Turkey has exhibited a strong will that Bashar al-Assad must leave the wheel of the country, but no significant option for how this can be done has emerged so far.

The fragmentation in the international community is bestowing extra life on the Assad regime, but also causing dozens of people to die every day. The death toll has already exceeded 8,000 according to United Nations statistics. The Syrian opposition, on the other hand, claims this number to be above 11,000. And the Assad regime says more than 2,000 security troops have died. In addition to deaths, there have also been increasing human rights violations and displacement of populations. Moreover, thousands of people are reported to have gone missing after they were arrested by Assad's troops. Currently, about 250,000 people have been displaced within the country while at least 30,000 people have sought shelter in neighboring countries.

Countless cases of torture, ill-treatment and rape, as well as massacres by Assad's forces and the Shabbiha militia indicate the sheer magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Worse still, in addition to the regime, the dissident groups, too, have started to engage in torture and ill-treatment, as noted by international human rights organizations. The mutual rage and hatred is building every day between the regime supporters and the dissident groups along some sectarian and religious fault lines and the country is swiftly being dragged into a full-fledged civil war.

And Assad's dictatorship is taking full advantage of the international community's failure to exhibit a unified reaction. Feeling duped by the Western powers in the recent crisis in Libya, Russia and China seem to have taken revenge for it in the Syrian crisis. They continue to veto any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution that would pave the way for the transition to the new system in Syria. Any move for which the UNSC fails to secure international legitimacy poses risks with unprecedented consequences.

Therefore, the international community must do everything to convince Russia and China that the Assad regime must go. To this end, the international community must give guarantees to Russia -- whose sole naval base in warm seas is Syria's port city of Tartus -- that its interests in the region will be protected. In other words, Damascus is no longer the addressee or target of the diplomatic efforts that are being carried out for the settlement of the Syrian crisis. It is Russia with which the international community should conduct diplomatic efforts to solve this crisis, or even go as far as applying pressure. I am afraid every alternative solution that fails to persuade Russia will bring about bigger issues and crises.

In this context, it should be noted that Syria has embarked on a rapid process of armament in response to the threat coming from the US invasion of Iraq and its armament has increased by 600 percent in the last five years, with Russian-made weapons forming 78 percent of this new effort. Moreover, given the fact that Syria has medium-range missiles that are capable of carrying chemical warheads, it is clear that any intervention from a country in the vicinity is too risky. While creating a buffer zone or safe haven in Syrian territories -- albeit for humanitarian purposes such as housing displaced people -- may be an acceptable option from a theoretical perspective, it is really hard to put it into practice. This is because whatever the intention might be in such a move, one can be sure that the Damascus administration will see it as a violation of its sovereign territory. You may work hard to advertise it as a humanitarian initiative, but Damascus will perceive it as a declaration of war. And the risks of such a perception must be calculated well.

From all perspectives, the Syrian case has come to a complete deadlock in diplomatic, political and military terms. As a country that is directly affected by the developments in Syria, Turkey does not have much room for maneuver. And there is not much reason for hoping that this will change in the meetings slated for April 2. Whether you accept it or not, the key to solving the Syrian deadlock is in the hands of Russia. The good news is Russia is signaling that it has abandoned its earlier strict position and is moving toward a new position. The statements Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made on Saturday and Russia's lending support to the mission of Kofi Annan as the joint representative of the UN and the Arab League can be seen as weak, yet promising signs. We may expect that when a certain threshold is met, Russia will stop backing the Assad regime and permit a new process to be started for Syria, and it will be followed by China. We will then be in a better position to solve the Syrian deadlock.

Of course, this does not mean that the issue will be settled. Russia and China may be persuaded, but I don't think we can entertain similar hopes about Iran and its supporters. Iran will never abandon Syria as the most important link in its area of influence. So the Iran factor must be mitigated. Moreover, the complicating role of Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki must also be taken into account, even if he cannot be expected to be at odds with Washington. It is not hard to expect that after becoming the term president of the Arab League, Maliki will try to restrain the pressure from Arabs against Assad.

I am saying all these things because I believe it is impossible to get rid of the Assad regime without a direct or indirect external intervention, particularly considering the current situation in Syria. And such an intervention cannot be made without securing international legitimacy, which in turn needs the support of Russia and China. Still, I don't think we should altogether drop an international intervention from the agenda while the crisis in Syria deepens every day. In particular, it is a contradiction for Turkey to liken the Syrian case to the tragic events in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to say that it is against any foreign intervention in Syria. You may or may not bring about such an intervention, but if you declare in advance that you are against any intervention, then you are deprived of the deterrent that the possibility of an intervention may create in Damascus. That is, you encourage Assad and give a green light to his massacres.
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