Should the World Ask for Russia's Help in Syria?

Vilifying Moscow's support for Assad hasn't helped, but striking a grand bargain just might.

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Syrian President Assad speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov during a recent meeting in Damascus / Reuters

Russia's veto of the UN Security Council resolution and Foreign Minister Lavrov's subsequent Damascus visit this week have positioned, if not isolated, Russia alongside Iran against Arab, Western, and indeed international consensus opposing Bashar al-Assad's barbarism. Buried within the headlines on last Saturday's vote was the fact that both India and South Africa voted for the resolution condemning Syria. Yes China voted alongside Russia. But Beijing did not subsequently dispatch its foreign minister to Damascus in an effort to find a way to keep Mr. Assad in power. Russia is clearly in a diplomatic place it would rather not be.

Lest anyone think that the Russians have emerged unscathed, the normally taciturn United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon yesterday linked Assad's ferocious assault against Syrian rebel areas that entered its sixth day on Thursday to the Russian veto, saying that the veto "has encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people." Put less diplomatically: Syrian blood is flowing due to Moscow's obdurate behavior. British foreign secretary William Hague was withering in condemning the Russians and Chinese for watering down a resolution that they then proceeded to vote against, rightly accusing them of "betraying the Syrian people."

The failure of the UN and Arab League monitoring mission to bring an end to Assad's killing machine has forced the international community to face the Syrian challenge head-on. Western governments can no longer sit back and wait for Arab monitors to watch the killing continue without also incurring some of the blame. The Obama administration has taken the right steps by withdrawing the U.S. diplomatic mission to Syria and by supporting the establishment of an international coalition of "friends of Syria"-two measures I've been advocating for some time. But as Syria enters an even more brutal phase in the conflict between its ruler and ruled, stronger measures are needed.

Some now argue for arming the opposition, while others go further and call for an immediate military intervention by Turkey, a coalition of Arab states, and perhaps NATO forces. Such steps may be necessary. But they also risk making the situation worse rather than better. To be sure, they should not be taken off the table, if only to bolster the efficacy of other non-lethal efforts, including intensifying sanctions, isolating Assad and his top supporters, and trying to split the military off from Assad. The problem with all of these options is that they will take time during which more Syrians will surely die. Such options should be explored, and the use of force should not be completely ruled out-which is how the Obama administration is proceeding.

Presented by

Robert M. Danin

Robert Danin is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and writes at Middle East Matters.

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