x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Russia's redoubled support of Syria has no end in sight

Moscow is sending shipments of advanced weapons to prop up the Assad regime, but does not have a real plan beyond more violence.

The observers are leaving and the arms are arriving. At the weekend, the United Nations bowed to the inevitable and declared it could no longer continue its monitoring mission in Syria. Incidents of violence against observers and a deteriorating situation on the ground meant their safety could no longer be guaranteed.

Nor can the safety of Syrians. Also at the weekend, The New York Times reported that a chief Russian arms exporter had said his company was shipping advanced missile defence systems to Syria - systems that could shoot down fighter jets and sink ships. The declaration was seen as a warning against military intervention in a country ravaged by civil conflict.

If Russia is emerging as the strongest defender of the regime of Bashar Al Assad, it is doing so in a dual role: protecting the country at the United Nations from tough resolutions that could pave the way for intervention, while providing Mr Al Assad with weaponry to give foreign armies pause for thought.

Yet Russia is not completely inflexible in its attitude towards Mr Al Assad. Last week, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested, at least, that Moscow might consider options that might lead to a transition. What Russia objected to was that conditions of departure were being dictated from the outside.

One option that might garner political backing is a transition, similar to what occurred in Yemen: Mr Al Assad would lead a transition, or step aside and appoint a prime minister to lead a change over, and eventually he would depart from office. When reports of this solution first surfaced at the end of last year, it was given the name the "Yemenski Variant" by some Russian commentators.

This month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had discussed the idea with her Russian counterpart. "In my conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov he himself has referred to the Yemen example ... we would like to see the same occur in Syria." It is worth noting, however, that in recent days Mr Lavrov has denied taking part in "political conspiracies" with the United States regarding regime change in Syria.

There are, in any event, serious problems with a transition based on the Yemen model, problems of which Moscow must be aware. The most pressing at the moment is that Mr Al Assad does not see it as an option and there are few ways of pressuring him to accept it.

Among all the Arab countries that have seen turmoil, Yemen's situation is probably the most similar to Syria's: in both countries, uprisings involved large swathes of the countries, but opposition groups were insufficiently armed to topple the regimes alone. Both countries occupy strategic locations, and nearby countries fear conflict would spill over. A civil war in Syria might swiftly involve the region.

Mr Al Assad could conceivably use this as leverage, departing the presidency yet leaving, as happened in Yemen, parts of the regime intact. For now, however, he won't because of what one Syrian journalist has called the "Maher mentality" - the belief, associated with Mr Al Assad's hawkish brother Maher, who controls the Republican Guard, that the uprising is not a genuine expression of dissent but an armed threat to the stability of the country. The answer to that problem is not reform - Mr Al Assad has shown no appetite for anything except cosmetic changes - but more violence.

Even if Mr Al Assad could be persuaded to leave - or other elements of the regime pushed him out - there would remain another problem that did not exist in Yemen. The Syrian opposition, such as it is, does not have the support base to negotiate a deal with the regime.

In Yemen, in addition to the street protesters, there were armed factions that opposed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh: the influential Hashid tribe, with its militia, and General Ali Mohsen, who commanded an important division in Yemen's army. These rival bases were able to mobilise sufficient political influence and firepower to convince Mr Saleh to make changes. The massacres of protesters may have catalysed the opposition, but Mr Saleh fell under pressure from organised forces.

No such rival base exists in Syria. The Syrian National Council remains divided, its leadership made up mainly of exiles that do not have a coherent political base inside the country. The Council has tenuous control, at best, over the rebel armed forces, which are loosely coordinated as the Free Syrian Army although there is not a unified command structure. The Yemeni option would mean uniting the opposition for a transition. The SNC does not have that level of support inside the country.

Which leads to the last and most urgent question regarding the Yemeni option: would Syrians accept it? The uprising is now well into its second year. There have been months of violence, and massacres across the country. Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands, or more, have been deeply affected by the violence. There surely has been too much blood spilt for Syrians to accept any remnants of the Assad regime.

For now, the "Yemenski Variant" is not an option. Mr Al Assad will not consider it, and Syrians would not accept it. But that prompts another question: if Mr Al Assad will not go peacefully, if he will not be pushed out by his people or the army, then what? If the Assad regime will not be ended by politics or the popular will, what force will ultimately prevail? The new missile systems show Mr Al Assad and the Russians are preparing a military alternative.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai