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Instead of waving a big stick over Syria we need to be dangling carrots for Putin

2012 June 17

Dead babies are not enough. Nor are primary school children who have had their throats cut in front of their fathers in hideous reprisal for dissent against the government. Nor is chopping off the hands, legs and genitalia of those who happen to be the wrong religious denomination or ethnic group. All these things are sufficient to provoke international outrage. But it is an impotent outrage.

The violence in Syria has escalated significantly in the past 10 days. The evidence against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, from 23 separate massacres, has mounted steadily to the point where Amnesty International has accused Syria of committing “crimes against humanity” to punish communities it thinks support anti-government rebels.

None of this hand-wringing seems to have made one iota of difference. The conflict, which has taken more than 10,000 lives in just 15 months, is now described by the UN peacekeeping chief in Syria as civil war. Indeed the condemnation of the international community appears only to have stiffened the resolve of Assad to stamp out his opponents as quickly as he can. There are reports the regime has begun to use chemical weapons.

Victims repeatedly ask foreign reporters why the world is standing idly by as innocents are slaughtered. We all know the answer. The Russians have vetoed any meaningful action by the UN Security Council. In response Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the rebels with weapons which only escalate the violence. In America neocons are urging Washington to do the same.

Meanwhile we in the European Union have responded with the bizarre gesture of banning luxury imports to the Syrian regime accused of killing thousands of its own people. No more caviar, truffles, pearls, flash cars or big cigars. That’ll show them.

So what is the way forward? To answer that it is important to understand that Syria has become an apocalyptic tapestry woven from some of the most problematic threads of our time. The dominant thread is the desire of the United States for stability in the Middle East to protect the supplies of oil on which its economy, shale-oil not withstanding, still depends. The warp to that weft is formed by Russia, China and Iran – the only effective axis of global resistance to the world’s sole surviving superpower. Woven into that is the unpredictability of Israel, which every US president must treat with gloved respect given the power of the Jewish vote in elections like the one President Obama faces in five months.

And now a fourth thread is becoming increasingly prominent. It is the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Most of Syria’s 22 million population are Sunnis but they are governed by a Shi’ite minority, the Alawites, to which the Assad family belong.  Many of the recent massacres have been along this sectarian divide. Last week a Sunni suicide bomber, possibly from al-Qa’ida, hit back by blowing up a vehicle near the Shi’ite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab to which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, mainly from Syria’s Shia ally Iran, travel each year.

The Sunni-Shia faultline has growing and frightening salience. Iran is Shia. So is the majority in Iraq. So is the Lebanon-based militant movement Hezbollah. By contrast most of the West’s traditional Arab allies are Sunni – Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and arms-supplying Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But, to complicate matters, al-Qa’ida is Sunni too, so the West is nervous that those who replace Assad might turn out to be fundamentalist jihadists. There is a very real danger that the violence in Syria could turn to all-out sectarian war. And that could even spread throughout the Arab world.

Which of these threads is easiest to unpick?  Despite what is widely said about the intransigence of Russia’s support for Assad, the most malleable element could be Moscow.  The Kremlin is determined not to lose Syria as the centre of its Middle Eastern sphere of influence. It has $20bn in investments there. It sells 10 per cent of its arms exports to Syria which gives Russia its only naval base on the Mediterranean.

Moscow, which feels it was tricked into abandoning Col Gaddafi in Libya, is determined not to make the same mistake over Assad.  The West has not been very skilful here. The harsh words of Hillary Clinton last week were typical. She announced that Russia had “dramatically” escalated the crisis by sending attack helicopters to Syria – but then had to admit that it was only sending parts for existing aircraft. The West’s rhetoric has reverted to the Crusader indignation used over Iraq rather than the careful language about self-determination used over Libya. It has put Russian backs up.

What is needed is a deal which will remove Assad but, as in Yemen, keep reformist elements within his regime sufficiently intact to preserve Russia’s strategic interests. Instead of waving a big stick Obama needs to be dangling carrots.  When he and Putin meet at the G20 in Mexico tomorrow he should be offering some good deals when Russia joins the World Trade Organisation in August. He should soft-peddle on public criticism of Russia’s political authoritarianism which Russians like euphemistically to call “managed democracy”. And he could offer verifiable assurances that America’s new missile defence systems are not specifically targeted on Moscow.

Above all he should pledge that Washington will not take military action against Iran, and will restrain unilateral air-strikes by the Israelis. Chaos along the Russo-Iranian border, he will know, is a far bigger political and economic threat to Moscow than anything that could happen in Damascus. Putin will drive a hard bargain. He is a hard man. But history shows that it is the deals with the hard men that stick.

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