Initially, only five Syrian protestors stood in al Hamidiya market on March 15, 2011 to protest the murder of young students accused of wearing anti-government graffiti. They shouted in Arabic: ‘we sacrifice our blood and souls for you Syria.’ Since then an estimated 22,000 Syrians, and counting, have been killed by the Assad regime to quell the pro-democracy demonstrations.
Although all Arab Spring countries shared common denominators of external pressure and internal violence, yet Syria remains a unique case because of the Cold War behavior the country conjures from its allies. In some prospects, Syria is seen as a proxy territory by the anachronistic Cold War mentality held by the Russians, Chinese and their allies in the region (most notably Iran). Intervening powers must recognize the interests of Syria’s allies- Russia in particular-in order to stop the bloodshed, remove al Assad, and keep the Arab Spring in blossom.
Russia expresses sensitivity to the developments in Syria recognizing Damascus as one of its few remaining strongholds in the region. In fact, in Tartus Port on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, under a 1971 agreement, renewed again in 2005, the one and only Russian naval shipping-deck in the Mediterranean is based there. Military analysts doubt the port’s functionality, which could be the case after exploring a few YouTube clips of the port’s old ships; nonetheless, the Kremlin appreciates it as a means to limiting Western influence in the Middle East, let alone a symbolic presence of Russia’s strength and global dominance.
Russia has a big stake in Syria today, not in al Assad by name. Damascus is one of the largest buyers of Russian weapons, third to only Venezuela and India. If Russia were to receive guarantees on military and economic roles in the new Syria, Moscow would be the first to support UN resolutions, and perhaps secretly demand al Assad to relinquish power and leave the country. The memories of Mikhail Gorbachev’s support, after being so reluctant at first, of UN Security Council Resolution 678 of 1990, which demanded Iraq to unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait, provide a base for optimism. Gorbachev’s support, as evidence later on revealed, was made possible through generous Saudi aid [bribe] amounted to four trillion dollars. 1
Likewise, China displays its own concerns fearing that sources of oil in the Middle East could be, for the most part, in the hands of Western states if the Syrian regime were to fall. Beijing worries itself with how authoritarian regimes- being one itself- are swiftly falling apart one after another. The domino effect sweeping the Middle East is real. In this regards, China identifies that overthrowing al Assad, adding to the list of former friends in Iraq and Libya, would possibly pave the path for the West to overthrow Ahmadinejad’s regime, which is of a strategic importance to China for oil imports. As of July, 2012, half of Iran’s oil exports are imported by China, Reuters reported. 2
By the same token, Iran views Syria as the corridor separating the Arab Spring from an inevitable Iranian Spring. Thus, by siding with Assad, Ahmadinejad in fact defends an advanced front. Further, as U.S. calls for Assad to abdicate power grows, the alliance between Tehran and Damascus grows accordingly out of common need, common goals and common cause.
The United States, on the other hand, favors and supports the idea of a Middle East without Assad for a host of reasons to include: backing up its rhetoric of democracy and freedom, acknowledging the concerns of its key regional allies’–in particular Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar- in addition to sincere concerns over the spread and leakage of WMDs in an inherently dangerous region.
Certainly, in the heart of Syria’s intractable problem lie disagreements among Russia, China and the United States; however, such discordance is not over the future of Assad. Moscow and Beijing understand that al Assad’s departure is inevitable. The Russian and Chinese discomfort exists in imagining the imminent post-Assad era. This is what stokes the cold war mentality. The continued failure to put an end to the Syrian massacre highlights the imperative need to address the Syrian case with its own merits. This requires a policy move away from treating all Arab protests as a singular unit.
To best abate al Assad is to tackle his sources of strengths and legitimacy: the military, the economy and Russia. After months of fruitless focus on weakening Syria’s military and economy , it is time for intervening powers to place much of their effort on Russia and identify that Syria’s military and economy are subordinates to Russia as an instrument to rid the country of the Assad regime.
Yasir Kuoti is an Iraqi freelance writer based in Washington D.C. Mr. Kuoti is a contributor to the Atlantic Community where he writes and comments on the politics of the Arab world.
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