Why Putin backs this vile tyrant

Published in the Daily Mail (February 6th, 2012)

With each day, the Syrian tragedy grows deeper. Over the past weekend we have had first a report from Human Rights Watch documenting the torture and murder of children, then the worst massacre yet, with perhaps 300 people slaughtered in the city of Homs. 

It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad, the London-trained eye doctor once feted as a reformer by Tony Blair, will stop at nothing to retain power for his corrupt and blood-stained regime. 

The sight of Syrian troops shelling homes once again increases the prospect that this uprising will spiral into full-blown civil war, with all the risks of sectarian strife in the midst of the Middle East powder keg. The governing elite is dominated by the minority Alawite sect, while many army defectors forming revolutionary militia are from the Sunni majority.

No one knows exactly how many people have already died. The UN estimated 5,400 in December, then stopped counting as the fighting intensified. Thousands more have been beaten, tortured and jailed. I heard the horror stories myself, visiting Syria a few weeks into the uprising.

That December death toll had doubled since early October, when Russia and China first vetoed a UN resolution threatening sanctions against the regime. On Saturday, these two autocracies – both wary of foreign intervention given their own problems with restless minorities – combined forces again to prevent a watered-down resolution being passed.

Incredibly, both claimed they opposed the motion – which called for al-Assad to step aside – in order to prevent more bloodshed. Even in a chamber that has heard contemptible cant from some of the world’s nastiest tyrants, this took Orwellian doublespeak to an epic level.

In actual fact, opposition was led by Russia. This was unsurprising, given that as the UN debated, some 120,000 people braved –20c temperatures in Moscow to march in support of democracy. But although the former KGB comrades running the country have good cause to worry about their own protest movement, their support for  al-Assad is far more cynical.

Syria is the biggest importer of Russian weapons in the Middle East – so the odds are that bullets aimed at the heads of children and shells setting houses aflame in Homs are Russian-made. It takes an incredible 10 per cent of Russia’s global arm sales.

Just last month, a Russian cargo ship laden with ammunition arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus, while the two nations signed a £420million deal for military aircraft. Russia has refused to bend to diplomatic pressure to stop fuelling the violence and volatility. Little wonder its flag has been burned in cities at the centre of the uprising.

Additionally, as Russian oil revenues dwindle it has spent heavily in Syria, drilling wells and building a gas processing plant – investments valued at £15billion. When I visited Syria, I was told there were also Russian computer experts helping hunt online opposition activists.

Vladimir Putin has fought hard to restore Russia’s status as a great power. With his popularity waning and a presidential election looming, he does not want to look weak, especially over a country home to its only military base outside the former Soviet Union. So what happens next?

Despite the UN’s grandiose talk of preventing crimes against humanity, is the only option to watch as people demanding democracy and human rights are mown down until the crisis grows so intense it risks engulfing the dangerous region?

The awful truth is there are few diplomatic solutions available; Russia and China have already stopped economic sanctions and an arms embargo. Although it would have been of symbolic importance, the timid UN resolution would have changed little since al-Assad has already ignored U.S. calls to quit.

Demands for foreign intervention are growing, but they are unlikely to be heeded given rising tensions over neighbouring Iran, the nervousness of Israel and diminishing U.S. appetite for such adventurism. The international community can and should help train the ragbag revolutionaries but the best hope may be to continue tightening the economic noose.

It may be the full scale of the tragedy is only starting to unfurl. Concluding a conversation with an activist I met in Damascus, I wished her good luck. ‘Luck doesn’t work in this part of the world,’ was her bleak response.

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