Russia changes tack, signals open to Syrian intervention

By Paul Koring

As the carnage in Syria worsened, Russia signaled a new-found willingness Monday to consider international intervention while the world’s nations planned a United Nations vote aimed at exposing the inaction of the great powers.

Syrian guns pounded anti-government strongholds in the opposition stronghold of Homs and the Arab League called for UN blue helmets to “to supervise implementation of a cease-fire.”

In Moscow, the shift indicated Russia was moving from defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its primary Arab ally, to managing a transition.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia, “together with other permanent members of the UN Security Council, (is) ready to promote the dialogue and an agreement.”

After twice vetoing Security Council resolutions condemning the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protestors by forces loyal to Mr. Assad, Russia may be abandoning its absolute defence of the Syrian regime.

But Russia’s call for a ceasefire prior to any conference could prove impossible to achieve.

Meanwhile, in the General Assembly at the UN in New York, the world’s nations were planning to vote Monday on a resolution condemning Syria. Unlike the Security Council, where any of the five veto-wielding permanent members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – can block any resolution, only a simply majority is needed in the 193-nation General Assembly. A vote is expected later this week.

But General Assembly resolutions lack the legally-binding force of the Security Council and can’t – for instance – be used to authorize military intervention.

An overwhelming majority vote, however, especially if it included strong backing from other Arab states of the resolution proposed by Saudi Arabia, would exert pressure on Russia and the other great powers to intervene, or at least, jointly condemn the Syrian brutality.

“What is happening in Syria leaves no doubt that it is not ethnic or sectarian war or urban warfare,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. “It is a campaign of mass cleansing to punish the Syrian people and enforce the regime’s authority.”

More than 5,400 people have been killed – most of them unarmed civilian protesters – since the Arab Spring uprising flared in Syria last March.

Moscow, with a naval base in Syria that gives the Russian navy an outlet to the Mediterranean, and Beijing have both blocked Security Council efforts to condemn Syria.

Meanwhile, Mr. Assad has attempted to portray the uprising as terrorist attacks on his regime.

In the United States, some senior political figures are calling for an international coalition to arm and support anti-Assad forces. So far, President Barack Obama has ruled out any sort of one-sided intervention.

The 22-nation Arab League said it would offer “political and financial support” for the Syrian opposition but ruled out munitions.

However, the Arab League’s call for an international peacekeeping force seemed unlikely to attract much support among Western nations. The prospect of sending troops into another violence-wracked Muslim nation – even if armed only with a peacekeeping mandate – will be unwelcome in most western capitals where governments are busy trying to extricate their soldiers from Afghanistan.

In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the Arab League’s efforts but warned that sending peacekeeping forces – or authorizing military intervention as happened last summer in Libya – was “a matter for the Security Council to consider.”

In a statement he implored: “All violence must stop” and called on the Syrian government to “comply with international law and immediately end the shelling and use of force against civilians.”