2 Mar 2012

Realpolitik laid bare as Homs falls

As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calls for reconciliation in Syria, Lindsey Hilsum wonders if he is really moved by the suffering of the citizens of Homs?

Now that the Free Syrian Army has been driven from Baba Amro, and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are going house-to-house searching for insurgents and their sympathisers, the Russian prime minister is talking about reconciliation.

“Our intention is not to help either side, the Syrian regime or the armed opposition, but to achieve national reconciliation,” said Vladimir Putin to western newspaper journalists at his dacha outside Moscow.

“We don’t want a repeat of what happened in Libya. If all you do is supply the opposition with weapons and pressure Assad, they will never have a reason to come to the negotiating table. My understanding is that Assad is ready for talks.”

Being in a position of strength, following the fall of Baba Amro, I expect Assad is indeed ready for talks. Neither he nor his Russian backers have changed position – they just feel that after nearly a month of relentless bombing of a residential area, resulting in as yet uncounted numbers of civilian deaths, their opponents may be having second thoughts about continuing their uprising. The high human cost was not a by-product of their strategy but the aim – it was to show anyone who might consider continuing to rebel just what would happen. Now is the time to pause and see if the lesson has been learnt.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has only now been allowed into Baba Amro, to count the bodies and patch up those who haven’t yet died of their injuries. This isn’t a concession, it’s also part of the plan. In defiance of international law, which says that the ICRC should have access to the wounded, the Syrian authorities kept them out until the  military operation was over. The Russians and the Chinese have both criticised the Syrian authorities for barring the UN Humanitarian aid chef Valerie Amos from visiting. Hollow words – they know she is weak and powerless, and think their mild protest makes them look marginally less cynical.

I’ve heard different theories about why Putin is so protective of Bashar. Some say it’s because Syria is the gateway to Iran and Iraq, important markets for Russian goods. Others that it’s because of arms contracts – Syria owes Russia a lot of money, and if this regime falls, they will never be paid. A Russian democracy activist told me the other day that Syria is just a bargaining chip – when Putin really wants something from the west, he’ll drop Bashar. An alternative theory is that Putin wanted to make a strong stance to warn the west that he would brook no interference in Russia’s internal political situation.

I suspect that all of these considerations factored in Putin’s stance. It looks as if the suffering of the people of Baba Amro was of no importance at all.

Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @LindseyHilsum