UN intervention in Syria: What is Russia's tipping point?

Russia continues to oppose any United Nations intervention in Syria, even as violence escalates. But Russia might be persuaded to act if the Assad regime looks certain to fall, experts say.

Seth Wenig/AP
Secretary General of the League of Arab States Nabil Elaraby listens to Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari speak during a Security Council meeting about Syria at United Nations headquarters Tuesday.

A bitter stalemate at the United Nations over Syria means the deadly conflict pitting the Assad regime against its armed opponents is likely to continue until Russia believes that President Bashar al-Assad can no longer hang on, regional experts say.

“If the Russians become utterly convinced that the regime is going down the drain, then the US and its allies can convince them that their best bet is going with the future,” says Wayne White, an analyst with the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former State Department policy planner.

“But we’re clearly not there yet,” he adds, “so unfortunately it looks like the fighting and killing will continue.”

The UN Security Council is debating two rival resolutions on Syria. One is backed by the Arab League and Western powers including the US and calls for Mr. Assad to step aside while other political factions negotiate a settlement. A Russian version envisions ending the violence through negotiations between the Assad government and the opposition.

The Arab League is delaying its scheduled Feb. 5 meeting on Syria until Feb. 11 to give the Security Council a chance to act.

Russia has already said it considers any call for Assad to step down as tantamount to “regime change” and thus a red line it will not cross. As one of five veto-wielding Security Council members, it can also prevent the council from crossing that line.

Moscow opposes any international action for two reasons: its historic opposition to outside interference in countries’ internal affairs (though it has often not included former Soviet states in that policy); and its long diplomatic and military ties to Syria, its last foothold of influence in the region.

Mr. White says he believes the Assad regime is “doomed,” but adds that the Russians are “not yet willing to accept that – and are in a place where they are trying desperately to protect their own equities.” 

Joined by China, Russia vetoed a Syria resolution in October. International human-rights groups say that the rate of killings in Syria has doubled since then, with the UN estimating that more than 5,400 Syrians have died in the nearly year-old conflict. 

Most diplomats and experts see little chance that Russia will support or at least abstain from voting on a measure calling for Assad’s departure. They also say that a resolution without such a reference would be almost meaningless.

Some diplomats are floating the idea of a “humanitarian corridor” inside Syria where civilians would presumably be safe, or a “buffer zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border where refugees from Syria’s mounting violence could gather. But it is unclear what international entity would enact and enforce such measures in the absence UN action.

NATO says Syria is very different from Libya and is unlikely to involve itself in the conflict, even though Turkey, where tens of thousands of Syrians have fled, is a NATO member. The Arab League, which has suspended Syria’s membership and is now calling for Assad to step aside to allow elections to determine a new government, has no means of enforcing such measures. It recently had to withdraw its modest Syria observer mission in defeat.

On Tuesday at the UN in New York, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Russia’s repeated comparison of Syria to Libya is a “false analogy,” and she insisted that Western powers have no intention of intervening in Syria.

But White says it’s not unreasonable for the Russians to “suspect” the West’s UN measures are about regime change, because they are – even if the means are different from what took place in Libya.

He says: “The Russians are going to balk at anything useful in terms of collective action to speed up the departure of the Assad regime, and that’s really what all the others want.”

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