x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Russia holds the key to ending the Syria crisis

Russia backing of a resolution condemning the Houla massacre offers a glimmer of hope that it might negotiate a way out for Bashar Al Assad and his close circle, without throwing out the entire system in Syria.

As Russia's premier met with his Chinese counterpart this week to discuss trade and security, the international community was interested in what wasn't on the official agenda: what the two countries might do regarding Syria.

The conflict in Syria continues, and each week brings new tragedies in that country. The massacre in Houla last week was followed by an announcement this week that the Free Syrian Army would no longer commit itself to the patchy ceasefire. The uprising in Syria, now into its second year, is still relatively restrained, but the brutal reaction of the government of Bashar Al Assad has been anything but.

In the region itself, there remains much disagreement on what to do. Saudi Arabia has suggested the Syrian rebels should be offered the means to defend themselves; Qatar may already be shipping in military aid. The UAE remains committed to the Annan peace plan.

Into all of this discussion comes Russia and China, which have remained steadfastly - and frustratingly - by Mr Al Assad's side.

China's motivation is not unlike its stance on Iran: it prefers nonintervention. But Russia's position is more complicated and nuanced than simple obstructionism. National interest informs Moscow's stance, and chief among its concerns is the Russian naval base at Tartous, on Syria's coast.

But there are also commercial, even ideological reasons for the obstinacy.

First, Russia believes international intervention in Libya was an over-reach, a violation of the sovereign affairs of a state. Vladimir Putin, whose return to the presidency was met with popular unrest this year, is loath to set a precedent for regime change.

Second, the chaos into which Libya descended (and the uncertainty in which it remains) was bad for business; if a similar case were to unfold in Syria, Russia's business interests would be placed at risk.

Finally, Russia probably sees a marginally functional state on its periphery, similar to the situation in the Caucasus, as a more pliable partner, and certainly preferable to a democratic state outside its sphere of influence.

Yet for all the reasons why Russia might continue to resist international pressure to squeeze Mr Al Assad, there is some movement: Russia backed a resolution against the Houla massacre. And it may yet be possible to find a way out for Mr Al Assad himself and his close circle, without throwing out the entire system.

But for now that is only a possibility, not a coherent policy. Until that changes, the Russian bear will continue keeping the wolves from Mr Al Assad's door. And the rest of the world is left with the least bad option: a shaky Annan peace plan that must be allowed to play out.