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Thursday, February 9, 2012

The West Cowers As Russia Asserts Its Authority In Defense of Assad

Twenty years ago this month, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad sent the Syrian army to the town of Hama to put down a rebellion by Sunni radicals and members of the Muslim Brotherhood by completely destroying the city. While most Western diplomats maintained that only 1,000 people were killed, widely accepted estimates put the number of casualties at 25,000, while some estimates have been as high as 40,000.

Western response to the massacre was tepid if not non-existent. In the ensuing years the focus of the West was on courting Assad because of his ties to the Soviet Union. The Western policy was to ignore the casualties and the reason for them. Reagan's Secretary of State James Baker visited Hassad, as did Clinton's Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeline Albright. Clinton himself visited Hassad in 1994.

Assad died in 2000 and like all good governments of the people, by the people, and for the people, his son Bashar al-Hassad succeeded him.

Residents in a shelter in the Sunni Muslim district
of Bab Amro in Homs. February 8, 2012.
Credit: REUTERS/Mulham Alnader/Handout

Fast forward twenty years to the Syrian town of Homs.

Without benefit of unfettered communication between the people of Syria and the rest of the world, Syria has been in a state of civil war for the better part of the past year. Only recently have western journalists been able to get inside Syria to provide even minimal reports.

Estimates last summer were that over 1,000 people had died in the fighting, and in recent weeks the fighting has accelerated exponentially.

Some sources from inside Syria claim the middle-class are standing firmly alongside Bashar al-Hassad as the civil war continues. To a certain extent this may be true, but just as in neighboring Bahrain, where the Shi'ite majority is trying to quell unrest from the Sunni minority, the middle-class is largely comprised of a different sect from the class that is being routinely displaced and murdered.

From a diplomatic standpoint the West's hands are tied because of Syria's close alliance with Russia. From a military standpoint anything short of a full-scale invasion isn't going to help, but Putin has sent signals that any military intervention by the West could very likely result in a Vietnam-style stand-off between the West and Russia. Putin is still burned by the intervention in Libya and as he ratchets up the rhetoric, it has become clear that Western intervention in Syria is not acceptable.

On Wednesday, Putin made the following statement:
"Of course, we condemn any instance of violence, whatever side this violence comes from, but one cannot behave like a bull in a china shop. 
“We need to allow people to decide their own fate independently. People should be given [the opportunity] to decide their fate themselves.” 
The first sentence is an obvious swipe at President Obama and NATO for our involvement in Libya. An involvement that admittedly has an unknown conclusion.

Putin's comments were made after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov returned from Damascus and stated Hassad had vowed to end the violence. “The president of Syria assured us he was completely committed to the task of stopping violence, regardless of where it may come from,” Lavrov said after meeting with Assad. Whether Hassad figured the best way to stop the violence was to completely wipe out the opposition wasn't made clear by Lavrov.

Some will say this is an internal squabble between classes or religious sects. Some may even gently turn away from what Assad is doing because Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism, and not the best regional friend the US has.

Add this to the fact that Putin is facing unrest in his own country, with the possibility of a "Russian Spring" a real possibility as he runs for re-election. Syria and Iran are all that remains of any credible Russian bloc, and it looks like this is where Putin is going to make his stand. While the events in Syria are troubling and ghastly, the underlining political climate as it pertains to Russia is cause for concern.

We beat Russia to the punch in Libya and now it seems the people of Syria will pay the price for that. Syria and Russia are presenting the West with a rather unpleasant Buridan's Ass.

Portions of this post possible with information from DayPress.

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