Russia’s decision to send attack helicopters to dictator Bashar Assad reveals the insincerity of its offer to help end the deepening conflict in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cracked down on protesters in his own country, knows full well that Assad will use the helicopters to massacre his own people. The United States must give Russia a choice: Either the arms sales to Assad’s regime stop, or others will begin openly arming Syria’s rebels.
For months, US officials have tried to persuade Russia to stop protecting Assad’s ruling family, a Cold War-era ally that hosts Moscow’s only naval base in the Middle East. Russia’s strong statements in support of the six-point peace plan put forth by Kofi Annan raised hopes that Russia would play a role in moving Assad out of power.
But the plan, which expires July 19, has failed to stop the bloodshed. Instead, violence has escalated — partly because Assad retains Russia’s support even as he tries to kill his way out of this conflict. As massacres by pro-government forces become a daily occurrence, arguments for arming the rebels grow stronger — and a protracted civil war seems more and more inevitable. People fighting for their lives against overwhelming firepower should not be simply abandoned to die. Left to their own devices, the rebels will likely turn towards radical groups, including Al Qaeda, for weapons. As long as Assad has the upper-hand, he will never negotiate an end to his own rule.
The Obama administration and the Arab League must show Russia that its complicity with Assad is unacceptable. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who condemned the Russian arms sales earlier this week, must be clear that the United States is prepared to act. An executive order that curbs US business deals with Russian companies that supply Syria would be a start. Beyond that, the United States and its allies should also lend greater humanitarian support to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey, and try to promote a unity of purpose among the Syrian opposition. Getting rid of Assad will not save Syria unless there is a plan for what will replace him.
So far, the Syrian opposition is disorganized, with limited ties to the fighters on the ground. But the recent decision to appoint Abdulbaset Sieda as new leader of the Syrian National Council, the largest opposition group, is a positive sign. Sieda, a secular exile from the Kurdish minority, is trying to show the world that the opposition is moderate, multiethnic, and pro-Western. If Sieda could convince Russia that it would still have influence — and a naval base — in a post-Assad Syria, maybe Russia will think twice about helping Assad murder people.