Opinion: Assad Must Go… Maybe

Moscow. Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

The United States took a significant step last Friday towards helping the Syrian people escape oppression and murder. It wasn’t saying that President Bashar al-Assad had to leave—that’s been the refrain for months. It was finally demanding that Syria’s two powerful allies say it too.

Russia, and to a degree China, have been preventing any progress on Syria for almost a year. They vetoed two United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime for atrocities. And while they did sign on to UN envoy Kofi Annan’s ceasefire and political transition plans, they did so insincerely and hypocritically.

After backing Annan’s ceasefire, Russia continued to allow the delivery weapons to Assad as part of past military agreements. Then, in the latest incident, Russia somehow backed a political transition plan—while demanding that Assad not be forced out as part of that transition.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rightly noted that the clause that says the transition government has to be a mutually accepted mix of regime and opposition members automatically excludes Assad. As the dictator who has allowed, if not ordered, neighborhoods to be shelled, prisoners to be tortured and women and children to be murdered, Assad cannot stay.

Yet while Russia backed this clause, they did so while rejecting the notion that it implicitly excludes Assad. According to a report a couple weeks ago by Al Jazeera, Russia objected to language in a previous version of the statement that was interpreted by Moscow as preventing Assad from being part of the transitional government. It was like saying that Assad must go… maybe.

Such a stance is ridiculous and completely impeding any progress on a peaceful transition in Syria. Civil war is looming as a likely and soon-to-come scenario, if it hasn’t begun already. How many have to die before Russia finally realizes a lame duck brutal ally isn’t worth the trouble?

That is why Clinton’s comments on Friday were extremely important. In comments released by the State Department, the American diplomat called upon the nations at Friday’s Friends of the Syrian People meeting to “reach out to Russia and China and to not only urge, but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”

Clinton went further and said, “I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all—nothing at all—for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress—blockading it—that is no longer tolerable.”

What will that look like? It’s unclear. After working so hard to rebuild Russian-US relations after the disagreement over missile defense, it’s hard to see the US sanctioning Russian companies for dealing with Assad. But that’s something that probably should happen.

First, the US ought to demand a vote at the Security Council for UN sanctions on Assad for continued brutality. Force Russia and China to again stand alone and veto such a measure.

Second, assuming that does happen, the US should lead a campaign of pressure diplomacy on Russia and China. Frank, blunt language should be used in speeches and dialogue that demands Beijing and Moscow do the right thing.

Third, if necessary, the US should pursue efforts at divestment from Russian companies doing business with Assad, starting with Russian arms dealers. Russia has long been a roadblock to pressuring Iran and now Assad. It’s time we all realized they aren’t our friends. It’s time to stop treating them like they are.

Assad must go. Not maybe, not in an election. Now. And unless the world applies that sense of urgency to its relations with Syria and its allies, Assad may never leave.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, July 8, 2012)