The revolution in Syria is all about time.
The international community wants to hasten the day that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaves office. Yesterday at a sidelined United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, rarely one to mince words, called out Assad, saying “Your days are numbered.”
This may be true, but ruling out a Libya-style military intervention, there are other tools that can eventually force change, but none that can speed up the clock. Meanwhile, the United States has closed its embassy in Damascus, a sure sign it expects violence to escalate dramatically in the weeks ahead.
Russia has given Assad at least a temporary lease on life through its weekend veto of a watered-down resolution that supported an Arab League plan for Assad to cede power and open the door to an elected government.
In Damascus yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for dialogue with the Syrian opposition and “reforms that address the legitimate demands of the people.” Russia does not consider a new president one of them, but Moscow may be forced to revisit that judgment at some point. In the meantime, Russian protection puts additional time on Assad’s clock.
Assad pledged yesterday to work with anyone who supports “a Syrian solution to the crisis.” U.S. officials fear that Assad will use Russian political cover as a “permission slip” to crack down even harder on protesters around the country.
The Syrian protest movement, after nearly a year on the street, still waits for its Spring. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, change in Syria was never going to be easy or quick. Syria’s revolution will likely succeed, but in slow motion.
With Russian political, economic, and military support, Assad can survive, potentially for months. Assad continues to command the loyalty of his security forces, although the pace of defections continues to increase. Try as the government might, it has been unable to make the protests go away.
The tipping point will come, according to Syria experts, not with a silver bullet but through sustained pressure from many different directions. This needs to involve the Arab League sooner and Russia later.
The Security Council resolution condemning Assad was a symbolic action, not insignificant but not by itself decisive. The resolution was really about Security Council unity, the key to economic sanctions and political consequences.
With major players not yet on the same side of history, the play shifts to the Arab League, which meets this weekend to consider next steps.
The Arab League deserves credit—even if self-serving to the surviving governments of the Arab Awakening—for its uncharacteristic call for Assad to step down. The Arab League, along with Turkey, will have to find ways to tighten the screws on the Syrian economy, a task made more difficult by Russia, China, and Iran, Syria’s key regional ally.
Working through a loose coalition of “friends of a democratic Syria,” the United States and the international community should increase efforts to build up the Syrian opposition, particularly those still in the country. Syria is splintered politically, with lots of communities, including Christians and minorities, still on the fence. The opposition must not only coalesce against Assad, but demonstrate they are a viable alternative that will protect everyone’s interests. Recent experiences in Egypt and Libya, not to mention Iraq, show how difficult this will be.
The West has indicated publicly it will not arm the Free Syrian Army, but countries in the region surely will, seeing in Syria an opportunity to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East. If the Free Syrian Army is able to control pockets of territory, and protect the population in the process, political momentum in Syria can shift dramatically, as it did in Libya. Nonetheless, there is danger as the combatants increasingly view the struggle in military terms.
Forcing a Russian veto (with Beijing happy to hide in the background) does provide leverage.
Lavrov’s quick trip to Damascus reflects Russia’s isolation. While Lavrov again blamed both sides for the violence, Russia is quite aware where the international community will lay the proverbial dead cat if violence continues to escalate.
Russia will hold its current posture through its elections in early March. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, soon to be president again, is contending with his own unwelcome protesters and won’t support term limits elsewhere as he seeks another 12 years in office.
Syria is a longtime client state, a species Russia increasingly sees as endangered by this wave of political change. Not only is Syria an outlet for Russian military exports, it is the home of a Russian warm-water naval base at Tartus.
Nonetheless, if change is perceived as inevitable in Syria, Russia will recognize that the longer it holds on to Assad, the more it places its long-term interests in jeopardy.
The United States needs to find a way to exploit this conundrum. Distasteful as it might be, a realpolitik approach to Putin’s inevitable reelection—a pledge to work together and calm the existing choppy waters in the relationship—might pave the way for cooperation on a transition in Syria.
“If the Russians elect to play a positive role, they could be crucial,” said one administration official. “If they’re going to weigh in positively, I hope it’s soon because if Syria implodes, everyone loses.”