Moscow's Position: A Message to the Regime and Opposition in Syria

Today, the world is watching in terror as the Syrian authorities step up their crackdown on the protesters and as the odds for Syria sliding into civil war soar to new heights with dissent being forced into becoming an armed insurgency.
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New York - Fear of Internationalization is a Syrian complex par excellence that led the regime in Damascus to sign the Arab League's Protocol allowing Arab monitors into Syria to protect civilians. This move was made by the regime to avert UN Security Council (UNSC) measures, culminating in international sanctions against Syria. Russia has implicitly threatened to internationalize the Syrian crisis when it surprised Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by introducing a draft resolution in the UNSC earlier this week, forcing him to approve a process that will ultimately topple his regime through Arab and international accountability and monitoring. The UNSC and the Arab League have made a coordinated move as they withdrew impunity from the Syrian regime, while offering the chance for a dignified exit for Bashar al-Assad, if he so wishes. But should he presume that the chance for a dignified exit offered to him is a form of retreat, then Assad would be making one of his biggest mistakes yet - which are both numerous and startling. Today, the world is watching in terror as the Syrian authorities step up their crackdown on the protesters and as the odds for Syria sliding into civil war soar to new heights with dissent being forced into becoming an armed insurgency. With the situation as such, neither the U.S. nor the European members of the UNSC can sit idly by as security conditions deteriorate further while the Arab League prepares to send its monitoring mission. Surely, the League should have been better prepared in advance to deploy this mission, instead of waiting for Syria to sign the protocol then begin to put together the team of monitors and their terms of reference. The Arab League is a relative newcomer to this field and the Syrian authorities seem to be in a hurry to exploit the time period between its acceptance of the protocol and the formation of the team. They want to make a final push against rebel strongholds, before having to withdraw its troops in implementation of the Protocol.

There is some kind of race taking place between the Syrian regime's campaign of security mop-up on the ground and a potential UN Security Council resolution that Russia may be compelled to push through in the event of continued Syrian miscalculations. Indeed, Russia, along with Iraq, had attempted to help Syria avoid internationalization and to persuade the regime to sign the Arab League protocol. Iraq, for its part, has convinced the Arab League to give Damascus more time and a way out claiming this would prevent Syria from falling exclusively into Iranian hands and heading for a sectarian war in the region. But Iran today is not in an enviable position as this country too finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place, no matter how it attempts to pretend that it is impenetrable.

The Iranian behavior at present is odd, cutting off the nose to spite the face, so to speak, as evident for instance in Iran's severance of economic ties with the UAE, which is almost its only lifeline. Iran is also in a dilemma over the deterioration of conditions in Iraq as well as due to the drop of its currency's exchange rate to its lowest level. This undermines its stability, particularly if further sanctions are to be imposed on Iran. The Islamic Republic is also extremely concerned by the situation in Syria, as a result of the conduct of the regime in Damascus in a manner that defies a sound strategy, and reason and logic. The leaders of the regime in Syria are acting with a mixture of hubris, arrogance and denial. Some among them believe that a wager on weakness and exhaustion in the ranks of Arab and European countries will pay off in the sense that water will soon be once more under the bridge. Others, meanwhile, are trying to buy time by pretending to cooperate and through trickery and deception that would keep the hammer from landing over the head of the regime in Damascus. Then there is a segment in the ranks of the regime that has decided that there is no choice other than a decisive security solution to the crisis, no matter the costs, and even if it leads to a bloody civil war - either as a means to keep the regime in power, or leaving power with a war that spares no one, the regime included.

It is said that some figures in the regime believe that implementing the Arab initiative is a chance for making a dignified exit from power. The monitoring mission is an opportunity for the regime to cooperate and a chance for a new page for the regime- as they see it. They believe this would ward off stepping down in a humiliating fashion and that cooperation might on the long run save the regime it from increasing pressures, particularly pressures of looming internationalization. But there are also those who understand very well that the monitoring mission - even though it was reduced from 500 to 100 monitors and the Arab League agreed to radical Syrian amendments to its scope - will be the countdown to the end of the regime. According to the Protocol, the Syrian forces would have to withdraw from cities and streets to their barracks, under the supervision of the monitors; the protesters would have the right to hold peaceful protests; the monitors would have the right to visit prisoners; Arab and international media would have the right to enter Syria without restriction. All these conditions are spelled out in the Arab Initiative, and they strike at the heart of the Baath Party's tyranny and monopoly over power in the country.

It would have been better for the Arab League to entrust the task of creating this monitoring mission to the UN, a body that has more experience in this field. While it already accepts counsel and recommendations from the Secretariat of the UN, it now needs a quick mix of Gulf funds, actual partnership on the part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in recruiting monitors, and practical preparations by the Arab and international media to rapidly deploy to Syria. Otherwise, the Arab League will have to ask the UN to carry out this assignment, especially if the bloody crackdown in Syria continues with a view to take advantage of the time wasted.

Some in the Syrian opposition and others accuse the Arab League of affording the regime in Damascus time at the expense of Syrian lives. Some see its reluctance as complicity. Others believe it to be a wise strategy as it lures the Syrian regime into internationalization betting on its violation of Arab agreements and its abuse of Arab good faith. But it is better for the Arab League to throw its weight behind a UNSC resolution that would restrain the Syrian regime and hand it an ultimatum that sanctions and accountability are inevitable should the regime continue with its deception. A tradeoff between a pan-Arab settlement and internationalization is no longer realistic, particularly when the dynamics on the Syrian arena and at the UN Security Council have since changed. European countries at the UNSC, led by Britain, France and Germany, are pushing the Arabs to request a UNSC resolution arguing that this is an important step in countering the Russian-led opposition at the UNSC. But the painful events that resulted in hundreds of deaths in the days that followed the Syrian signature of the Arab protocol have forced the European countries and the U.S. to stop hiding behind the Arab "leadership of the process" and to start putting pressure on Russia - the President of the UNSC this month - to expedite a resolution.

Russia has suddenly proposed its draft resolution, perhaps with a view to pull the rug from under the feet of the West and the Arabs who have worked closely together on a strategy to put pressure on Syria. However, there is a possibility that a radical change in Russian policy on Syria has taken place, prompting Moscow to decide that it is time for a firmer approach with Damascus and for withdrawing the cover of impunity afforded to the regime. It is clear that Russia has played a role in pushing Syria to sign the protocol on the monitoring mission. What is not clear is the extent of Russian earnestness in allowing the UNSC to issue a pertinent resolution. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether it had introduced its draft resolution as a gambit or a means to put pressure, or whether it is seriously intent upon putting it to the vote with slight amendments.

Whether to maneuver or whether Russia has abandoned the regime in Damascus, the Syrian opposition must heed the Russian messages and seek to take advantage whether this was a tactical mistake or a real change in Russian strategy. Indeed, Moscow is troubled by the rise of the Islamists to power in the countries that saw the Arab uprisings and is prepared to turn the table on the opposition - if it was forced to do so or if it decides that this would be in its interests - adducing in the process the militarization of the opposition, particularly by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, preventing Syria from descending into civil war is not the responsibility of the regime alone. The Syrian opposition must act in earnest and obtain guarantees from its various components that monopoly and exclusion are not in the offing. Here, responsibility is equally assigned - but not when it comes to the violence. Yet this does not negate the fact that increased militarization of the Syrian uprising may lead to accountability for the opposition as well, and not just the regime. It is a crucial stage of the utmost importance then, not only for the future of Syria, but also for the nature of Arab-International relations, the relations among permanent members of the UNSC, and Iran's relationship with Syria and its surrounding, as well as the relations between the international community and Iran- a country that figures highly in the Syrian sphere today.

Internationalization may be a bane for Syria but it is a necessary one. Damascus has so far proven that it is still in denial and deception. It is therefore time to tighten the noose around the regime, in all earnestness.

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