When last we checked in, the Syrian government had just approved Kofi Annan’s UN-backed peace plan for ending the conflict. With the deadline for the ceasefire tomorrow at 6AM local time (11PM Eastern), how is the outlook for peace? Not good. All signs point to the deadline coming and going without any letup in the violence. The regime has already publicly declared that they will not honor the ceasefire without written assurances from the rebels that they will do the same. Those assurances are not forthcoming, and the Free Syrian Army has in response accused the government of preemptively undermining the peace plan. The backdrop to all this was the announcement last week that the so-called “Friends of Syria” international coalition, which includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would begin funding anti-government forces. Since then, the Syrian army has increased attacks in conflict areas in the days leading up to the ceasefire.
So what now? It appears that the rough calculus of the conflict hasn’t changed much. The regime will continue pummeling anti-government forces around the country, while attempting to manipulate public opinion in order to retain at least tacit support from most Syrians. The anti-government side will try to carry on as best they can, smuggling arms from Lebanon and Turkey and hoping to entice more Syrians—members of the government and army, in particular—to turn against the regime. Any political process will probably be thrown out with the ceasefire; Annan’s plan called for negotiated political changes as the next step, but those will get put on hold indefinitely if the fighting does indeed persist.
The United States and NATO countries have thus far been incapable of finding a productive course of action. They have ruled out any form of military intervention (an issue I hope to address later) and directly arming the rebels is not particularly feasible, especially given their disjointed state. Nothing has been able to resolve the conflict, while the low-intensity civil war continues to claim dozens of lives a day (estimates of the toll have topped 10,000) and displace hundreds of thousands.
The focus should be on lessening the violence. Though at its core this is a political conflict, foreign governments involving themselves in Syria’s internal politics won’t be good for anybody. But if the violence can be dialed back, it could alleviate the humanitarian crisis while potentially spurring on the political process within the country. The key is limiting the government’s ability to perpetrate the conflict. This may seem like a partisan point—it takes two sides to fight a war, after all—but the government’s military might far outstrips anything the opposition could possibly muster without significant outside help (which is most likely not forthcoming). Much of the humanitarian problems are caused by government bombardment of cities, both from heavy artillery and aerial attacks. Restricting the regime’s military capabilities would reduce non-combatant casualties and deaths—while reducing the number of refugees—and allow for anti-government forces to make some progress against the army.*
The best way to restrict the regime’s military capabilities is to restrict its supply of materiel. The way to do that is to convince Russia to stop selling weapons to Assad. This is easier said than done, of course. Russia has sold hundreds of billions of dollars in arms to Syria in the last few years alone, and it stands to make a lot of money the longer the civil war continues.
And Russia seems in no hurry to stop. (I don’t know what kind of sweetheart deal could tempt them to do so.) But it does seem that Moscow is starting to lose patience with Assad. If Russia could be convinced that Assad’s days are numbered, and that it’s merely a matter of time before he leaves power—under whatever circumstances—then persuading them to cease weapon sales becomes much simpler. Difficult? Yes. But not impossible.
The fact remains that Russia is what is keeping the Assad regime afloat, at least militarily. (Iran also provides military equipment to Syria, but Russia accounts for upwards of 70% of all of Syria’s weaponry, and Iran has major problems of its own right now.) As recently as January a Russian shipment of sixty tons of ammunition and arms reached Syria. Without such support, the Syrian government would be unable to continue fighting as it has. Any chance the regime has of a decisive military victory would be gone, and the entire calculus of the war changes. Political solutions would emerge, and Assad would have a tougher time justifying staying in power. His rule now is based on fear and force, and, as the picture above shows, the fear is quickly waning. If his force starts to dry up too, he might have to rethink Qatar’s offer of exile.
Pressuring Russia to cut Assad off, though not directly stopping the fighting, would go a long way towards lessening the violence while shifting the circumstances against the regime. And it does so without any form of foreign intervention. If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d be on the phone with Sergey Lavrov right now.
* This last point is most problematic. Limiting the regime’s ability to fight, while certainly lessening the violence, merely makes the playing field between the two sides more equal. It does little to put a stop to the fighting directly.