Can Russia Save Syria? Can Anything?

By Robert Wright

Earlier this week I criticized Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice for their high-volume indignation over Russian and Chinese vetoes of a UN resolution that would have called on Syria's president to step down. And I still think Clinton and Rice were hypocritical, given America's long tradition of overlooking the atrocities of dictators who are as close to America as Bashar al-Assad is to Russia.

Still, it looks like the public shaming of Russia may have done some good. Russian leaders are sounding pretty defensive, and Russia's foreign minister says he'll work to start negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition. His prospects can't be great, but I've got to think Russia has a better chance of influencing Assad than that UN resolution did.

I wonder if national leaders are more sensitive to international shaming now than they were back before electronics made the world seem small. Or maybe it's just that the things they're ashamed of are harder to cover up; the images coming out of Homs must make it harder for Russia to walk away. (In 1938 Chamberlain famously described turmoil in Czechoslovakia as "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Today you couldn't say that about Papua New Guinea.)

Meanwhile, I haven't found anyone with a compelling idea about what to do. Everyone seems to agree that this would be a much messier intervention than Libya (where, the New York Times reminded us yesterday, things remain a bit messy even now.) And everyone seems to agree that things will be very messy in the absence of an intervention.

Part of the problem is that, as usual, America's standard dictator narrative doesn't apply. That narrative envisions a single "autocrat," with a small coterie of thugs and lots of military hardware, oppressing the rest of the population. But it looks like Assad may be able to hold the allegiance of ethnic groups constituting a third of the country (Allawites, Christians, Kurds)--plus the military hardware.

There is at least some cause for hope in two New Republic pieces--one pro-intervention and one not--that go beyond indignant denunciations of Assad and of Russia and actually look at things from their point of view.

The pro-intervention piece notes that if Russia is to join in authorizing an intervention it will have to be guaranteed post-war use of its cherished warm-water naval base in Syria. (I would add that the same pre-requisite holds if Russia is to truly support more peaceful regime change.) The anti-intervention piece notes that if diplomacy is to work, key members of the Assad regime will have to be guaranteed safe exile after this is over.

Looking at things from the point of view of bad guys is always unpopular--certainly in America, home of the good guys--but it's just about always valuable.

Coda: I had actually raised the last point--about guaranteeing Assad safe haven--in a recent Bloggingheads dialogue with Matthew Lee of Inner City Press, who is the world's most dogged United Nations correspondent. When I asked him if it was possible to grant immunity from prosecution to a dictator who has committed atrocities, he pointed out that, actually, we just did that with another dictator who is probably at the Ritz Carlton in New York at this very moment:

See web-only content:
http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/02/can-russia-save-syria-can-anything/252824/

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/02/can-russia-save-syria-can-anything/252824/