Tony Karon writes: The notion that Russia might soon abandon Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime may prove mistakenly optimistic: Moscow is now supplying attack helicopters to Damascus. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Tuesday that the U.S. confronted Russia about the new arms deliveries, but Moscow insisted that the shipment was unrelated to Syria’s political conflict. The news was confirmed by the U.N.’s deputy head of peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous. “Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control,” he told reporters. “Now we have confirmed reports not only of the use of tanks and artillery but also attack helicopters.”
There is, of course, no U.N. authorized arms embargo against Syria, and Russia is legally entitled to continue arming the regime. But the news suggests an escalation and, indeed, Ladsous called the conflict a “civil war.” The distinction between a popular rebellion and a civil war in Syria is more than semantics, because a civil war is resolved not simply by settling the fate of the leader of one of the sides but must also address the fate of the community that fights on his behalf. The situation in Syria appears nowhere near the point of a mediated settlement, despite fears that a civil war could imperil regional security and the reluctance of Western powers to accept the burden of de facto ownership of an unraveling Levant by intervening militarily to change the balance of power.
All along, Russia has made it clear that, while it is willing to see the departure of Assad if that’s what the Syrians agree to at the end of a peaceful political dialogue, it’s not prepared to countenance the armed overthrow of that regime — hence Moscow’s blocking of U.N. authorization for an intervention in the Syrian conflict and its continued arms supplies to the regime. It also consistently challenges those outside powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supplying weapons to rebel forces. Russia joined with Western and Arab states in backing special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for a cessation of hostilities and political dialogue in April, but that plan has never been implemented, and both sides continue to violate its cease-fire provisions.
The Assad regime has clearly opted to fight a sectarian civil war rather than open up democratic political space for its opponents and engage in a dialogue that would threaten his political survival. Rallying the Alawites, Christians and other minorities to back a vicious crackdown on the basis of fear of an Islamist Sunni rebellion clearly appeared the safer bet to Assad. But the rebellion has proved resilient: in almost a year and a half, some 15,000 Syrians have reportedly been killed in what has become an increasingly vicious sectarian civil war. Massacres like the one in Houla have claimed the headlines, but they don’t tell the full story of daily cycles of communal retribution at local levels and mounting fears on both sides that are fueling even greater violence. Syria, in short, is being torn apart, and the inevitable Bosnia comparisons contain within them a chilling portent: the collapse of a single polity composed of multiple ethnicities and sects into separate ethnic and sectarian fiefs. [Continue reading…]