Is Putin actually right on Syria?

With the conflict in its second year and a death toll that now may well be on track to hit 100,000 (refugee numbers already estimated at 1 million), there has been renewed discussion about should the West get involved and how it might do this.

Ignored however in all this dialogue is the role of Russia, one of the few remaining allies of Assad, which has continued to insist that negotiations take place with no preconditions and have used their military and UN prowess to ensure that the old regime has survived far longer than anticipated.

The interesting question however is why. Russia has been damaged internationally for its association with the regime and undoubtedly has lost influence in the wider Middle East for this. Of course the clichéd defences (of which I have used before as well) that Russia is propping up Assad for its naval base (Tartus) and to maintain its anti-American axis in the Middle East, have been the stock responses of Western analysts, but this is a mistake.

In short there are 6 reasons why Western leaders should re-consider opening peace negotiations without any demands for Assad to step-down:

  1. The flood of refugees and fatalities is reaching critical and the other methods to resolve this conflict are not working.
  2. Only Assad’s regime has any kind of resemblance of the state infrastructure necessary to prevent a state collapse like that seen in Libya and Iraq (2003).
  3. Assad is still popular with a significant and influential portion of the nation who have tied their fate to his.
  4. The countries Chemical Weapons cannot be secured by Rebel groups[1] (who have no intention of handing them over to the UN or Western nations) nor can they be secured by Western (and Israeli) special forces. Assad must be involved.
  5. Syria is becoming a jihadist training ground for Western born radicals who will return home with combat training and international terrorist contacts.
  6. When Secular dictatorships have been rapidly replaced in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and among the Syrian FSA (or more accurately anti-government forces[2]) the biggest losers on the ground are the Secularists and those who believe in women’s right and equality.

Of course these points all could merit extensive essays in their own right and I am certain that many would debate them, but the key is to ask the question:

“Would Syria and the Syrian people actually be better off today if Assad stood down and left the country than if they negotiated with Assad right here and now?”

Any deal with Assad here and now has several inherent advantages, not only does it ensure that there is actually a central figure who has the full support of the regimes elements who can actually negotiate a peace that will be accepted, but it also would ensure that any peace deal would have support from the whole international community and more particularly, the UN Security Council.

Assad does not have to stay on as leader after a peace deal, in fact I doubt that many of Assad’s supporters really believe this is feasible, but I sincerely doubt that any other figure in the Syrian government would have the necessary backing from the regimes supporters domestically and internationally, to sign a deal for peace.

The longer the fighting continues the greater the regional overspill and threat to security not only along the borders with Israel and Turkey, but also the fall-out in Lebanon which is threatening to upset the fragile state further. The continued conflict is also damning a generation of Syrians with poverty, lack of education, psychological scars and allowing radical Islamists to recruit and train the next generation of fighters to further destabilise global security.

There is no easy answer to Syria, but arming rebels, no-fly zones, direct ground forces, or peace talks without Assad will not work and may do more harm than good. We may not like Assad, nor do we have to, but the Russians have a point to make and it is worth listening to.

Perhaps sometime soon Western diplomats may listen. Then again, probably not.

 

[1] It is worth highlighting that the UN investigation into this attack unusually will not be tasked with assigning who used the Chemical weapons (if they were used) and nor has the Western media reported the full details that the Syrian government have given on how rebels may have obtained them. To me it would be unusual for Assad to admit that A.) He lost chemical weapons and B.) allow the UN to investigate their use, if he had ordered their use. At any rate it seems clear the issue is more complex than has been reported.

[2] Following an exceptionally well written piece by Aron Lund I have decided that I will refer to the Syrian Free Army as a collective term for anti-government forces as opposed to a central organisation with a clear structure and hierarchy of command: http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/?p=18104

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