Russia Sets Out Tough Terms for Resolving Syria’s ‘Civil War’

By sending Assad gunships and insisting Iran be included in talks, Moscow is signaling a changed geopolitical balance

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David Manyua / Handout / EPA

A handout image from the U.N. shows smoke rising from a residential area in the Syrian city of Homs on June 12, 2012

The notion that Russia might soon abandon Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime may prove mistakenly optimistic: Moscow is now supplying attack helicopters to Damascus. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Tuesday that the U.S. confronted Russia about the new arms deliveries, but Moscow insisted that the shipment was unrelated to Syria’s political conflict. The news was confirmed by the U.N.’s deputy head of peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous. “Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control,” he told reporters. “Now we have confirmed reports not only of the use of tanks and artillery but also attack helicopters.”

There is, of course, no U.N. authorized arms embargo against Syria, and Russia is legally entitled to continue arming the regime. But the news suggests an escalation and, indeed, Ladsous called the conflict a “civil war.” The distinction between a popular rebellion and a civil war in Syria is more than semantics, because a civil war is resolved not simply by settling the fate of the leader of one of the sides but must also address the fate of the community that fights on his behalf. The situation in Syria appears nowhere near the point of a mediated settlement, despite fears that a civil war could imperil regional security and the reluctance of Western powers to accept the burden of de facto ownership of an unraveling Levant by intervening militarily to change the balance of power.

(MORE: The Case Against Intervention in Syria)

All along, Russia has made it clear that, while it is willing to see the departure of Assad if that’s what the Syrians agree to at the end of a peaceful political dialogue, it’s not prepared to countenance the armed overthrow of that regime — hence Moscow’s blocking of U.N. authorization for an intervention in the Syrian conflict and its continued arms supplies to the regime. It also consistently challenges those outside powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supplying weapons to rebel forces. Russia joined with Western and Arab states in backing special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for a cessation of hostilities and political dialogue in April, but that plan has never been implemented, and both sides continue to violate its cease-fire provisions.

The Assad regime has clearly opted to fight a sectarian civil war rather than open up democratic political space for its opponents and engage in a dialogue that would threaten his political survival. Rallying the Alawites, Christians and other minorities to back a vicious crackdown on the basis of fear of an Islamist Sunni rebellion clearly appeared the safer bet to Assad. But the rebellion has proved resilient: in almost a year and a half, some 15,000 Syrians have reportedly been killed in what has become an increasingly vicious sectarian civil war. Massacres like the one in Houla have claimed the headlines, but they don’t tell the full story of daily cycles of communal retribution at local levels and mounting fears on both sides that are fueling even greater violence. Syria, in short, is being torn apart, and the inevitable Bosnia comparisons contain within them a chilling portent: the collapse of a single polity composed of multiple ethnicities and sects into separate ethnic and sectarian fiefs.

(PHOTOS: The Aftermath of a Mortar Attack by Syrian Army Forces)

Already, the scale and nature of the conflict, where fighters from neighboring villages of different sects are already involved in a series of revenge attacks, undermines a simple people-vs.-despot formula for addressing and resolving it. The shabiha – Alawite irregulars armed and backed by the regime in the way that Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian armed forces backed the vicious Serb militias that rampaged in Bosnia — are fighting for Assad but with a ferocity that some fear may be beyond the control even of the regime.

Rebel militias are reportedly improving their armaments, particularly antitank weapons, and growing in confidence, even as they abandon hope in prospects for negotiating a credible peace. Growing rebel capacities coupled with the fact that so many people remain willing to kill for the regime  underscore the fact that ending the fighting may require more than simply democratic elections and the right to protest. Although nobody’s talking in those terms right now, the ghosts of Bosnia serve up a reminder that the conflict that roiled the Balkans for four years in the early 1990s was resolved only through the communal guarantees and ethnic partitions formalized in the Dayton Accord and the deployment of 40,000 NATO troops on the ground to keep the sides apart.

Western powers appear to be hoping that the scale of the violence and failure of the Annan plan thus far will persuade Russia to abandon Assad and even agree to some limited form of intervention. And unlike the Annan plan that envisaged Assad remaining in power through a cease-fire and political dialogue, the U.S. is once again demanding his immediate departure from Syria and the transfer of power to an interim government. That demand is flatly rejected by Russia and China, and the helicopters cited by Clinton would appear to be a more eloquent nyet than any formal Russian statement on that idea.

(MORE: Why the U.S. Won’t Give Up on Kofi Annan’s Syria Plan)

Moscow is pressing its own ideas on how to deal with the failure of the Annan plan to gain traction. It believes the fighting can only be stopped by a consensus of all external parties who are backing the various combatants. Annan concurs, having asked all governments with influence to “twist arms” to achieve a cease-fire. To that end, Moscow has proposed holding an international conference on Syria of the Western powers, Russia and China, Arab League countries, Turkey and Iran. The Obama Administration balked at the inclusion of Tehran in negotiations over Syria — indeed, many in Washington see Syria through the prism of the U.S. conflict with Iran, advocating Assad’s ouster precisely in order to weaken Iran by eliminating its most important Arab ally. But the Russians are insisting that any serious attempt to resolve the crisis in Syria would need to involve all stakeholders, and that means Iran, which is even more intimately aligned with the regime than Moscow is, would have to be at the table. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to visit Tehran on Wednesday to discuss the Syrian situation as well as next week’s nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers in Moscow.

Moscow is certainly doing its best to disabuse Washington of the idea that Russia can be coaxed into backing the West’s formula for resolving Syria’s power struggle. Instead, with the support of China, it appears to be using the Syria showdown to try to establish new ground rules for the geopolitical game in the Middle East.

PHOTOS: Syria’s Year of Chaos: Photos of a Slow-Motion Civil War

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