Running Out of Options in Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Syria continues its descent into chaos as the Asad regime continues to brutally suppress popular protests and armed rebels alike. Meanwhile, the international community has failed to come up with a proposal acceptable to all parties in the conflict. Just last week, a relatively meek UN Security Council resolution calling for the partial transfer of power away from Bashar al-Asad was vetoed by Russia and China. In the absence of any meaningful activity by the world’s great powers, other countries in the region have decided to step in, but whether that involvement yields any results remains to be seen.

There is no denying that situation in Syria has deteriorated over the last few days. For Arab News’ Aijaz Zaka Syed, “When the history of these interesting times is written, the people of Syria will perhaps take their place right at the top….So much for the international community and its fine institutions! Where’s the civilized world when it’s needed most? What is the point of institutions like the United Nations when they cannot stop the endless, cold-blooded massacre of a helpless people at the hands of its own rulers and army?…what Russia and China have just done to torpedo a UN resolution against the killers in Damascus even as the world watches the carnage on television screens is as shameful as what the U.S. and its allies have repeatedly done to protect Israel in the world body. The Russians and Chinese have Syrian blood on their hands.”

Russia’s veto of a UN resolution that would have put pressure on the Asad regime, albeit not unexpected, did raise some eyebrows in the region. For example, Amir Taheri, in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, suggests: “In tactical terms, the veto could enable Vladimir Putin, seeking to return as president, to mobilize his support base on the eve of an increasingly difficult election….He also hopes to discourage the Russian pro-democracy movement….With the recent change in Libya, the Russian navy is left with no base in the Mediterranean apart from Tartus in Syria….The Mediterranean has been turned into a NATO lake. Russia has also lost the bulk of its markets for arms. In the 1960s the USSR was the world’s largest exporter of weapons, with radical Arab regimes among its best clients. Today, with the exception of Iran and Syria, the Greater Middle East is closed to Russian arms.”

Even more Russia-friendly sources see Putin’s veto as motivated by self-interest rather than commitment to the preservation of the Asad regime. According to Tehran Times’ Hassan Beheshti-Poor, “Russia won’t buckle in standoff with West over Syria… [because for] Russia, the establishment of a pro-Western government in Syria is absolutely unacceptable….Some observers believe Russia’s persistence in the current confrontation with the West may isolate the country in the international community. However, Moscow’s resistance has shown that it is the West which is becoming isolated and that the United States and its allies are no longer able to redraw the political map of the region based on their whims. The establishment of a pro-Western government in Syria would seriously destabilize the Middle East because it would give Israel what it has sought for a very long time.”

Mahmoud Shouri, another Iranian commentator writing in a Tehran Times op-ed, argues “Russia supporting Syria to retain foothold in Middle East…. The diplomatic row between the West and Russia over Syria at the United Nations Security Council is a clear indication of Syria’s strategic importance for Moscow. By protecting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the former superpower wants to prevent a repeat of the Libyan scenario….Russia has no place in the Western agenda for the Middle East…. Moreover, Syria is, by no exaggeration, the most important country in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Russians know this and thus are aware that protecting Syria can increase their bargaining power in the region.”

Despite such reasoning, the Gulf Times editorial asserts: “[The] Russia and China veto on Syria makes no sense…. It is incomprehensible what Russia and China stand to gain from their veto of a UN resolution in Syria apart from letting the world know they too wield tremendous power when it comes to global politics….The veto may have given Bashar’s regime some breathing space but there’s no way the world can let him get away with what he is doing to his own people. It belies logic that Bashar has not learned his lessons from the Arab Spring that toppled unpopular leaders in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt. He may continue to put up a brave face, but so did Gaddafi and Mubarak. Look what happened to them.”

Another Gulf editorial by The National makes the case for reform of the UN Security Conference: “It was the inherent bureaucratic faults of the Security Council’s current makeup that allowed the blood-stained leader to continue his assault on Syrian citizens. Russia and China, two veto-wielding permanent members of the council, stepped to his defence on Saturday, and once again, the world’s most important body for peace and security failed in its very mission. [E]very time the council’s members come up short the case for reform becomes stronger. Last week, the United Nations Security Council failed, some would say even betrayed, the Syrian people. As long as the Security Council remains a closed shop with antiquated voting practices, it will not be the last time justice loses out to politics.”

Meanwhile other actors are making moves to fill in the void. Among them, Turkey has had the most to lose and win from the reshuffling of the Middle East deck. However, as Hurriyet Daily News’ Barcin Yinanc cautions, Turkey must be careful who it chooses to associate with: “The Syrian crisis has been a real eye opener in terms of testing Turkish rhetoric on the reality. It also comes as an eye opener in showing the depth of Turkey’s relations with global players. By now it should be crystal clear to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that Turkey has no clout whatsoever over Russia when it comes to political issues….This is not the case with Washington. While there have been many times when the U.S. has totally closed its ears to Turkish advice, the frequency of the two countries seeing eye to eye on regional issues is incomparable to that between Turkey and Russia. That’s why Davutoglu must feel more at ease in Washington than he did in Moscow.”

Writing for the other major Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman, Othman Ali very thoroughly lays out the case for why the decision by the Kurdish population in Syria to ally with anti-regime forces can be a determining factor in the current conflict: “After months of hesitation, Syrian Kurds have decided to throw in their lot with the anti-Assad national uprising. This will hasten the fall of the regime. This new gain for the Syrian opposition was achieved after months of behind-the-scenes opposition diplomacy, intra-Kurdish negotiations and intervention from the U.S. and regional countries. This has resulted in the triumph of pro-U.S. and pro-Barzani diplomacy over a pro-Iranian alternative supported by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).”

Other countries in the region are also pushing forward with plans to weaken the Asad regime. Tariq Al-Homayed expresses relief over plans by some countries to recognize the opposition movement in Syria: “After months of violence and systematic repression carried out by al-Assad’s forces in Syria against the unarmed Syrians, it was announced in Cairo that the ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ project would finally see light in Tunisia, in the presence of Arab and Western countries, and this matter implies severing all ties with the al-Assad regime…. [This] means that the Arabs have practically decided to un-recognize the al-Assad regime, and have decided to stand genuinely with the blood of the innocent Syrians. There is no doubt that a mere announcement is not the end of the matter, rather it is the beginning of hard work in order to save the innocent Syrians.”

Finally, the Khaleej Times editorial believes “The decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to cut all diplomatic contact with Syria is another blow to the besieged regime of President Bashar Al Assad….With the Syrian crisis now having entered a critical phase that is quickly unraveling on every front, Assad’s only choice is to either give up or give in as the resistance picks momentum. Continued violence may even propel Russia and China that have been using their vetoing powers to block any UN resolution to withdraw further support….For now the killings have to stop and this is something Moscow and Beijing could threaten Assad with. It is hoped that they are able to use coercion to exercise this option without further delay.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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