As the Syrian death toll approaches 8,000, Russia stands firm in its supposed support of a strategy of non-interference and non-partisanship, maintaining that it is neither against nor in support of the al-Assad regime.
Nevertheless, a careful look underneath the surface reveals close ties between Russia and Syria, its only remaining ally in the Middle East. As the situation escalates and a resolution to the Syrian uprising remains to be seen, Western critics have been quick to denounce Russia’s supposedly non-partisan claims and its staunch opposition to international interference.
The violent internal conflict in Syria will soon mark its one-year anniversary in mid-March. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad remains resolute in his violent, twelve-year long rule. Part of the wider phenomenon of the Arab Spring, the Syrian uprising began with demonstrations as early as January 2011, and solidified itself as a significant national civilian movement following the nation-wide protests of March 15. Despite early disorganization, Syrian insurgents found common ground under the name of the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition to Assad’s Syrian Army.
The Free Syrian Army’s primary goal is to remove Bashar al-Assad and his government. According to Riad al-Asaad, former colonel in the Syrian Air Force and current commander-in-chief of the Free Syrian Army, this cannot be achieved without force. "Without a war, he will not fall. Whoever leads with force, cannot be removed except by force," Asaad told Reuters in late 2011.
Having defected from the Air Force in July 2011, Riad al-Asaad now leads the armed dissident movement from the Free Syrian Army base in Turkey’s southern Hatay province close to the Syrian border.
"We’re in contact with defectors on a daily basis. We coordinate on a daily basis with officers,” he said, “Our plan is to move to Syria. We’re waiting to find a safe place which we can turn into a leadership base in Syria."
Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin remains a committed critic of international interference in Syria. Despite the overwhelming evidence of violence by Assad’s government—the death toll now often exceeds 100 civilians a day—Putin condemns the public opposition movement, not the regime, urging them to abandon their violent tactics and start negotiations with the authorities.
In a highly controversial move on February 4, 2012, Russia vetoed the final draft of a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution on Syria, a move echoed by China. The resolution called for a “Syrian-led” political transition away from Assad’s government, although it failed to mention any form of punitive action.
Russia and China double veto has effectively produced a diplomatic stalemate in the face of escalating violence against civilians, including women and children, throughout Syria. The UNSC voted 13 to 2 in favour of the Arab-western collaborative resolution, blocked solely by Russia and China.
Although it is counter-productive, the Russian veto of the UNSC resolution is hardly surprising. Prior to the various UN deliberations of the past year, Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Alexander Pankin warned against "taking sides" in Syria and other Arab countries, for fear of "a never-ending circle of violence.”
Russia has previously blocked several similar resolutions, including the first and second drafts of a previous resolution meant to denounce Assad’s violent tactics of public suppression.
Nevertheless, to equate the Russian veto to an opposition against “taking sides” would be flawed. As one of the few countries to support Russia’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia, Syrian governmental cooperation and support are an invaluable asset to the Russian government.
Russia also holds further ties with Syria, as it is one of its primary arms suppliers. Predictably, Russia has also vetoed a resolution which would make it illegal for Russian firms to sell weapons to Syria.
Western critics have been scathing in their denunciation of the Russian response to the Syrian uprising. Most recently, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that it was “distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto, while people are being murdered—women, children, brave young men—[and] houses are being destroyed.”
"It is just despicable and I ask whose side are they on?” she said, “They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people."
As Assad’s forces continue to carry out ground assaults on the Syrian city of Homs, Russia—among few others—refused to attend an emergency debate held by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The meeting, originally planned for March 12, was moved up to February 28 in the face of the rising Syrian death toll.
In defense of his absence, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov explained that the meeting “actually interrupts the working methods of the Human Rights Council.”
Undeniably an attempt to maintain Russian authority in the region and to counter Western influence, Putin is determined to keep Assad’s government in power, as Russia continues to profit from behind closed doors. Boris Nemtsov, a critic and one of Putin’s political opponents, suggests that Putin’s fear of public revolt in Russia is fueling the flames of his Syrian government support.
"He believes that Gadhafi [ruled] in the past, [followed by] Mubarak, now Assad, and next it will be Putin. That’s why to protect Assad means to protect himself," Nemtsov said at a Canadian news conference.
Referring to the situation in Libya as a “sad experience,” Putin’s words confirm Nemtsov’s suggestion. Putin continued to say that he hopes “the United States and other nations will learn from [it] and won’t try to resort to a forceful scenario in Syria.”
In the face of Russia’s own “Russian Spring,” Putin is determined to keep the balance of power in its favour.
“Of course, we condemn any instance of violence... but one cannot behave like a bull in a china shop,” Putin said at a meeting in Moscow. Despite these claims, to allow Assad to continue his rule is anything but the condemnation of violence.
Too much remains at stake for Putin and the Russian government to maintain their policy of “non-interference.” To stand by and feign neutrality, as Syria’s civilian death toll rises by the day, is irresponsible and a breach of the basic human right to life.
The choice is clear: Let the conflict continue, and it will lead to nothing but a doubly violent civil war.