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A Syrian Turning Point for Russia?
Interviewee: Mona Yacoubian, Senior Advisor, Middle East, Stimson Center
Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 29, 2012

The massacre near Houla in northern Syria, in which more than a hundred people reportedly were killed, may turn out to be "a catalyzing moment in the Syrian uprising," says Syria expert Mona Yacoubian. "What's most important is that this event may begin to turn Russia significantly away from Syria," she says, even though Russia in February had blocked firm international action against Syria. "The Russians are making the same calculus that many of us watching Syria are making, that Syria could be heading into a very nasty sectarian civil war," which would be contrary to Russia's interests in the region, Yacoubian says. She also notes that the Syrian opposition continues to be fractured, and that it has not attracted the country's many minority groups. As for the United States, Yacoubian says that so far, concerns about the dangers of military action continue to dominate Syrian policy.
The Houla massacre has touched off a worldwide reaction, with UN peace envoy Kofi Annan returning to Syria to save his peace plan and meeting with President Bashar al-Assad May 29. Is Houla a turning point in the long Syrian uprising and conflict?
It could well be that the Houla massacre becomes a catalyzing moment. It was a horrific episode, and indeed the figures I've seen suggest that nearly fifty children were killed. UN reports say many people were shot at point-blank range. The reports suggest the Syrian government was largely responsible for the violence. This would certainly constitute perhaps the most flagrant violation yet of the Annan plan. So we are seeing very significant international reaction to what's happened in Syria. And numerous countries in Europe and of course the United States and Australia are expelling their most senior Syrian diplomats in protest. But what's most important is that this event may begin to turn Russia significantly away from Syria. That's what we're going to need to watch closely in the coming days.
Talk about the Russian attitude about Syria. Russia and China vetoed the rather strong UN resolution in February, but since then, they've supported various resolutions short of ousting Assad.
The Russians and Chinese have now supported three UN Security Council resolutions, including most recently on Sunday [May 27] a press statement. The Russians have been strong allies of the Syrian government for decades and have been leery of the transitions taking place in the Arab world. They were very upset about the NATO involvement in Libya; they claim that they felt they were somehow duped into supporting a UN resolution. I think that's debatable.
The most important failing of the Syria opposition to date has been its inability to attract significant elements of Syria's minorities, again whether it's the Christians, the Alawites, and the Kurds.
But what we've seen in Syria is a slow but sure evolution of Russia's position. The Russians are making the same calculus many of us watching Syria are making, that Syria could be heading into a very nasty sectarian civil war. From Russia's perspective, that would be a very bad outcome with respect to their interests in the Middle East. Syria in many ways remains the last bastion of Russia's influence in the Arab world. Many have noted the warm water port in Tartous, which is an important asset for Russia. Of course the Russians have also invested billions in economic projects, in military support and so forth. As the Russians come to the realization that the situation in Syria is deteriorating badly, and that they stand to lose these assets, this may provoke a shift in their strategic position away from Bashar al-Assad and those immediately around him. They're certainly not interested in wholesale regime change, and that remains their position.
In the best of all worlds, if Moscow could tell the Syrians what to do, what would they tell them?
In the best of all worlds, if they had total control over the situation in Syria--which they don't--they would leverage their military relations to essentially have the military in concert with the Russians. [They would] basically tell Bashar al-Assad and those immediately around him that his time is up. What the Russians would perhaps like to see is some sort of an engineered coup that would maintain the structure of power in Syria, but would essentially get rid of Bashar al-Assad and those immediately around him.
Does Bashar al-Assad control the army? What is his relationship to the army?
He has very strong control over particular divisions in the army; the Fourth Division and Republican Guard, for example, is under the control of his brother Maher, but ultimately the question is: Are there senior elements of Alawite background in the military who also make the decision and calculus that the country is essentially heading into an abyss? Frankly, we don't know a lot about relations between Bashar al-Assad, his immediate family, and this sort of clan that surrounds him, and the broader, senior Alawite officer corps. That is a fairly opaque area even in the best of times, and certainly more so now.
Who do you think should be the next president?
We are far from that at this point. But going forward in a post-Assad Syria, it will be essential that all minorities have a place in the country and in the power structure. I wouldn't presume to name specific names, but in a post-Assad Syria, there's got to be a place for the Sunnis--which constitute a majority, or a plurality of the country--but there also must be strong guarantees for the Alawites, the Christians, the Druze, the Kurds, [and] the many minorities that make up Syria's complex populations.
Talk about the U.S. position.
The United States has been watching Syria with tremendous concern. To date, the policy has been one largely of pushing for significant diplomatic and economic pressure. Various people in the Obama administration have talked about the dangers of military intervention. Even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, who did talk about potentially the need for military intervention if the humanitarian situation deteriorates significantly, also warned about the fact that once one unleashes military power, the dynamics are extraordinarily unpredictable. That concern continues to guide U.S. policy on Syria.
That said, there are also voices, certainly on the Hill, and perhaps within the executive branch, increasingly pushing for arming the opposition, as one option--or certainly not the U.S. directly arming the opposition, but turning a blind eye, perhaps, while others in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, provide arms. At this point, the U.S. is providing humanitarian assistance; they're providing non-lethal assistance to the opposition--telecommunication equipment and that sort of thing. But that is the extent of U.S. support for the Syrian opposition.
In the last several days we've had the resignation of the head of the Syrian National Council. There really is no unified opposition, is there?
No, and that's been, throughout the Syrian uprising, one of the key problems with why the situation in Syria has gone the way it's gone. The opposition has been unable to unify, either outside of the country or inside the country. And this is for a host of reasons. In many ways, the opposition itself reflects the enormous complexity of the Syrian population. Outside of Syria there have been charges that the opposition has been riven with political rivalries and ideological differences, and that it remains very much out of touch with those inside the country.
The Russians are increasingly alarmed by what is happening inside Syria; they are increasingly concerned about the behavior of the Assad regime, not because they have any particular attachment to democratic ideals, but because of their need to preserve their interests in Syria.
But the most important failing of the Syria opposition to date has been its inability to attract significant elements of Syria's minorities, again whether it's the Christians, the Alawites, and the Kurds. These are critical elements of the Syrian population, without whose support it's difficult to imagine that the uprising would be successful. And so unfortunately we are seeing the opposition continue to be plagued by differences. Meanwhile we are watching a continued deterioration of the situation on the ground, greater radicalization of elements, concerns that jihadist elements may be beginning to make inroads into Syria. This has been, unfortunately, a critical sort of downside, if you will, of how the uprising has evolved.
Do you think al-Qaeda in Iraq is in Syria?
There are sporadic reports of jihadist elements being involved in certain attacks [and] some of the suicide bombings that have taken place, and there have been a number of them since September of last year. There is a new, somewhat shadowy organization called the Nusra Front, which has taken responsibility for some of the attacks. Their connection to al-Qaeda in Iraq or al-Qaeda more broadly is undetermined. It's a murky, shadowy situation. But unfortunately, the conditions on the ground inside Syria are going to be increasingly propitious for radicalized Sunni jihadist elements to take advantage of the chaos. We may see more of that in the coming weeks and months.
Can Kofi Annan work something out?
Odds are pretty high against him. Much is going to depend, again, on what happens with Russia, and by extension China. Can the international community be galvanized to take even more intensive steps against the Syrian regime, first finding it in violation of the Annan plan? Then the key question is: What are the next steps? If Russia comes around and in fact disavows Bashar al-Assad, that may be a significant turning point in this conflict.
Has that happened yet?
Not yet. We're watching closely to see. There will be a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart on Friday. The Russians are increasingly alarmed by what is happening inside Syria; they are increasingly concerned about the behavior of the Assad regime, not because they have any particular attachment to democratic ideals, but because of their need to preserve their interests in Syria. And so we may see, as I said at the outset of our discussion, that the Houla massacre really becomes a catalyst for a shift in Russia's position. That could significantly alter the situation inside Syria.