x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Moscow will be held to account on Syrian crisis

How many more innocent civilians must die before the bloodshed in Syria is stopped? That may be a question only Moscow can answer.

How many more innocent civilians must die before the bloodshed in Syria is stopped? Foreign ministers at the UN Security Council in New York are asking themselves a version of that question this week. And yet, there may be only one government in a position to answer, and it's not the one clinging to power in Damascus.

Over the past week, Moscow's objections to a Security Council resolution on Syria turned from an irritant to a deadly obstacle. Hundreds of opposition members have been killed as diplomats dither, adding to the more than 5,400 Syrian deaths since March.

Moscow may not be pulling the trigger, but neither is it doing what it can to halt the bloodshed. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov's claim this week that a resolution would be a "path to civil war" is just the type of circular logic that will ensure the violence continues.

A Security Council resolution alone would not immediately halt the violence, but the absence of one will almost certainly embolden President Bashar Al Assad to continue his brutality. Moscow's very threat of a veto has given Mr Al Assad a sense of misplaced righteousness.

Bungling by the Arab League's observer mission has also given the false impression that the current Syrian regime can weather the international condemnation. That is why a unified voice in New York is so important to ending the crisis.

In truth, Russia may be less opposed to an international solution than it is in favour of protecting its own interests. Russia's ties to the Assads is strong, dating back to the Soviet Union. Moscow's top Middle East arms customer is on the ropes, and the loss of roughly 7 per cent of Russia's defence market is in the crosshairs. As recently as January, Moscow was inking deals for fighter jets worth over $500 million (Dh1.8 billion). A senior official said yesterday there were no plans to halt arms shipments to the rogue regime.

But Moscow's position may be softening. Yesterday, another senior Russian diplomat conceded his country would only veto an "unacceptable" resolution. The task now is to craft a measure that has enough teeth to influence the behaviour of the Assads. If that includes an explicit renunciation of armed foreign intervention, it might be worth the concession.

Capitals from Doha to Washington may take a hard line on Damascus, but it is erstwhile friends that have the most influence. Moscow has real power to curb the bloodshed of innocents, or alternatively to shirk its responsibility.