Only the Russian public can save Syria

How long will Russia continue to sacrifice relations with the West in favor of Syria?

Syrian Pres. Assad, Russian FM Lavrov, Damascus_390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian Pres. Assad, Russian FM Lavrov, Damascus_390
(photo credit: Reuters)
There is little reason to be optimistic about the future of Syria.
Both the largely Sunni opposition and the minority Alawite regime have their backs to the wall. If the opposition ends the protests—even for a short time—the regime will spare no effort to hunt down its leadership and thwart any attempt to restart the protests later. If the Asad regime were to transition to democracy, then the Alawites who support the regime will lose their grip on the military. As a result, they would lose their position of privilege and become vulnerable to terrible retribution.
While in theory, the sides could reach an agreement that would lead to a slow transition to democracy while protecting the civil and human rights of the Alawites, any such agreement would be stillborn. The reason: neither side can give an ironclad guarantee that it will not simply take advantage of such an agreement in the short-term, only to renege on their promises once they have asserted their grip on power over the country.
If there is no room for a bargain, then this civil war will be fought either until one side simply overwhelms and crushes the other (see Sri Lanka), or until outside actors overwhelm local forces and put an end to the slaughter (see Yugoslavia).
Unfortunately, there is almost no chance of intervention by the international community as happened in Libya. The main reason is not because the Syrian army is far more powerful than Libya's was. Syria's military, even if superior to Libya's, is still in no position to take on the air forces of NATO countries. It would probably be a matter of days before Syria's air defenses and air force were decimated and NATO aircraft could fly over Syria unimpeded. After that, taking out Syrian armor would be, to use the old expression, like shooting fish in a barrel.
So what is preventing large-scale Western intervention? In a word: Putin.While China and Iran also oppose Western intervention, Russia is the lynchpin. Iran on its own is in no position to stop a Western assault; they are barely able to deter an assault on their own country.
China, while wielding substantial diplomatic and economic clout, cannot enter the equation militarily. In fact, China can barely conceive of getting its enormous armed forces across the straits to Taiwan. Even in terms of the Security Council, China hates to go it alone, especially in a case like this, where its veto will open the country up to remarks regarding its own Tiananmen Square slaughter in 1989.
So the real glue of the forces opposing intervention is Russia, which has made it clear since the outset of the fighting that it will not tolerate Western intervention against its client. It has prevented any United Nations Security Council intervention, sanctions, or even rhetorical condemnation of Asad's savage repression. To signal exactly how seriously they take this issue, a number of Russian naval vessels have come to the Syrian port of Tartus, including the aircraft carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov," the Russian Navy's flagship.
So why are the Russians playing flak jacket for the Asad regime? Part of the answer is that Syria has been a Soviet, and now Russian, client for decades. This has led to massive Syrian purchases of Soviet/Russian arms. While during the Soviet era, Syria often bought arms on credit (amassing $12 billion in debt by the turn of the millenia), since 2006, Syria has largely paid in cash. Likewise, Russian companies have a privileged position when it comes to oil and gas development inside Syria.
Should a Sunni (and possibly Islamist) regime take power in Damascus, the privileged Russian position in these lucrative arms and energy markets would be in grave jeopardy. As Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, pointed out, the overthrow of Qaddhafi represented a $4 billion loss for Russia.
Moreover, while Asad supported the Russian onslaughts in Chechnya—where nearly 100,000 were killed—a Sunni regime may support the Chechen cause should fighting rekindle there. At the same time, Russian atrocities in Chechnya give a strong indication about Putin's personal view regarding the legitimacy of brutally crushing a domestic uprising.Still, perhaps the most important motivating factor here is the Russian resentment that Western countries so often do as they please, without fearing the Russian response, in places like Libya, Kosovo, and Iraq. At the same time, when Russia tried to throw its weight around during the 2008 confrontation with Georgia (its geo-political backyard), NATO countries applied enormous pressure and succeeded in forcing Moscow to curtail its actions.
No wonder Putin once called the fall of the USSR "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
This said, Russia's stance may have an Achilles' Heel. Russia's position on Syria has been determined by the Kremlin, with little domestic discussion or input. As Trenin told me in an interview this week, "many Russian professionals, experts, and journalists are questioning the wisdom of the current approach to Syria." Until today, the criticism focused on whether the relationship with Assad, who may be sinking anyway, is worth the price of strained relations with the West and the Arab world.
While an important first step, I wonder whether the opposition groups that have emerged lately against Putin could use his support of Asad against him. Until today, the Russian people have seen little of the dramatic footage which explicitly shows the Syrian army's ruthless crackdown on dissent. If the Russian public came to see the true scope of events in Syria, and then realize that their leader alone is preventing an end to the atrocities, could this pressure Putin to change his stand?
It seems that the best chance the Syrian people have to topple their regime is not to get their hands on a few more RPGs. What they really need is to learn to make YouTube videos in Russian.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.