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Russia holds the key to ending Assad’s brutal and bloody reign in Syria

Moscow is dropping heavy hints that - without US engagement - the status quo will prevail; Plus, Burma's democracy is still in grave peril
  • @peterpopham

It is as true today as ever that war is the decisive factor in the twists and turns of human history. The Syrian conflict is arguably the most threatening to world peace since the end of the Cold War. And in the flat refusal of President Obama to contemplate US involvement, whatever “red lines” Bashar al-Assad may or may not cross, we are beginning dimly to see the way the world is going. It is not a pretty sight.

Liberals like me applauded Mr Obama’s important speech last week, reining back American involvement in foreign conflicts. To see the end of the era that brought the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a vast relief. But America’s old Cold War foe has not been slow to pick up on the message. In a string of aggressive initiatives this week, Russia indicated that the power vacuum is already being filled. Britain and France were “hotheads” for dreaming of arming the Syrian rebels, Moscow said, ramming home that patronising insult with notice of its intention to supply Assad with a new advanced missile defence system. We learned yesterday that the first shipment had already arrived. Then came another line of attack: foreign minister Sergei Lavrov damned the US-backed UN resolution condemning Hezbollah’s support for Assad as “unilateral and odious”.

There has been speculation in recent months that the US and Russia, working together, could bring Assad and the Syrian rebel groups to the negotiating table to thrash out a deal. The peace conference pencilled in for Geneva next month was to be the forum for that. But Russia’s increasingly truculent posture suggests that it believes such a process, tortuously difficult as it would inevitably be, is neither desirable nor necessary. Despite 80,000 deaths, despite the alleged use of chemical weapons, despite the fact that Assad, like his father, was clearly responsible for the atrocious violence against civilians that sparked the war, Moscow is dropping loud hints that it thinks the status quo may well prevail; that without the clear and wholehearted engagement of the US – backed by the unambiguous threat of military involvement – their long-term ally in Damascus may be safe. In such a context – in the absence of the power that makes all the difference – Britain’s vague and so far merely theoretical interest in arming rebels carries little conviction.

We find ourselves in an ironical inversion of the crisis over Serbian atrocities in the Bosnian war, 20 years ago. Back then, it was the Tory Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who opposed arming Bosnian rebels on the grounds that it would merely create “a level killing field”. It was only the righteous indignation of President Clinton about European indifference to European atrocities that finally stung Europe into action. Russia, fatally enfeebled at the time, could only stand and watch the humiliation of Milosevic, its proxy and ethnic kinsman.

Twenty years on, it is the penitent heirs of Hurd, still determined in the Hurd idiom for Britain to “punch above its weight”, who are viscerally committed to making a difference. But I’m afraid we have entered a new age. The idea that Bashar al‑Assad could survive in power despite all he has done and despite all the domestic forces ranged against him is becoming less unthinkable by the day.

The trouble with the opposite scenario – his bloody downfall – is that in none of the other Arab countries where this has happened do we see so far even the glimmer of a stable, secular, progressive, legitimate government. One or more of those ingredients is always missing. And while Libya, because of its Sunni homogeneity, should at least hang together somehow, the prospects for Syria shattering into lawless and ungovernable shards – becoming another ideal zone for Islamist incubation – are far too likely.

Assad may survive for the same reason that the outside world sanctified his father’s violent seizure of power in the first place: ruthlessness at home, combined with susceptibility (because they belong to a vulnerable minority) to foreign patronage. And three months from now we could all be saying that, however deplorable, it was inevitable, and at least better than a failed state.

Then we will know that Moscow really is in the driver’s seat.

Burma isn’t yet a proper democracy

Burma is one country that would have changed much more slowly had it not been for the US, as the sole superpower, promoting democratic reform there over many years. That relationship was celebrated in a suitably tentative fashion during President Thein Sein’s recent visit to the Oval Office. There was something poignant about the Burmese head of state boasting that the two countries had “a similar government, since Myanmar is now a democracy …”.

Because, as both men were aware, Burma’s democracy is only a partial one, and is still in grave peril. Buddhist-on-Muslim violence spread this week to Shan state, with hundreds of so‑called “Buddhist” youths on motorcycles terrorising the minority population.

One gaping wound has been staunched with the agreement of a ceasefire deal between the government and Kachin rebels in the far north, where bloody civil warfare has driven thousands from their homes. But the rule of law, Aung San Suu Kyi’s mantra-like refrain in recent months, is still partial and tenuous. Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Depayin, near Mandalay, during which dozens of supporters of Suu Kyi were murdered by regime-sponsored thugs. No one has ever been held accountable for that crime.