By Lord Risby.
The most visited sites in Syria outside the cities are the magnificent Roman ruins at Palmyra and the vast crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers, part of a chain of such castles right across the country. One of the barely reported aspects of the country’s collapse is that some of their key heritage sites are reportedly under real threat, with no visitors, proper maintenance and even actual conflict damage.
It is clear that the unique Syrian tradition of religious co-existence is increasingly fracturing. It is ironic that the Assad regime sold itself as the protector of this culture of tolerance but will bequeath a much more religiously zealous country, and each day that President Assad remains in office, inter-communal tensions and violence grow.
It is undoubtedly true that the Assad regime will run out of money in months, but meanwhile the destruction escalates. Despite their acceptance of the Kofi Annan proposals, there is no evidence that the Syrian government will agree to the political track on offer. Sectarian passions will therefore take their course, and frankly there is little effectively being done to stop this.
Those who know President Assad believe that the Arab League, European countries, Turkey, the United States and others have failed to understand fully the President’s mindset. They argue that as long as he believes that his best chance of survival is to extinguish the insurrection by any means, the views of other countries are irrelevant. He knows that Russia will continue to offer sufficient protection at the United Nations to enable him to cling to this policy.
Given therefore that we want to halt the current bloodshed and intimidation in Syria, we ought then to consider whether the handling of Russia has been correct. Russia has suffered intense international criticism, yet has held to its stance thus far. The reason is simple. Particularly after Libya, Russia has no real friends in the Arab world, and the relationship it has with Syria’s military intelligence is regarded by them as crucial and invaluable. If, therefore, Russia could be given some clear assurances about some sort of continuing relationship with Syrian intelligence post-Assad, would this persuade them to abandon the regime? Some believe that a simple blunt telephone call to Assad from President Putin – telling him that his regime was over – would actually bring terminal reality to the ruling Syrian cabal.
Very quietly, this possibility is now better understood, and debate is underway as to whether Russia could be productively persuaded to change its stance, given certain guarantees, which would hasten the demise of the Assad presidency.
As nothing else so far, more than a year on, has brought the Syrian government to its knees, inviting Russia to clarify what it wants, and then potentially seeking its active help, could bring about a much more rapid departure of Assad and his coterie. Of course what follows may well be very much less than ideal, but delaying that inevitability makes the final outcome even more fraught with danger for the country’s stability.
Russia has undoubtedly helped to preserve Assad in power, yet must realise that the current situation is not sustainable. The Kremlin knows full well that this support brings with it opprobrium and hostility. It would therefore be worth exploring with Russia how it could help to bring rapidly to an end this tragic chapter in Syria’s long history. The price required may be well worth it.