After Russia joined the rest of the Security Council in condemning Syrian government forces for killing so many people in Houla, hope has arisen in the West that Moscow can now be enlisted to bring about a resolution to the ongoing crisis in Syria in a manner similar to what occurred in Yemen. As the headline of a May 26 New York Times article put it, the “U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out with Russia’s Aid.” Such expectations, though, are utterly misplaced. Moscow is neither willing nor able to persuade Syria’s President Assad to step down like Yemen’s President Saleh did at the beginning of 2012.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, there is one extremely important difference between Yemen and Syria. One of the reasons why President Saleh stepped down was because he was severely injured in June 2011 and has had to spend long periods of time outside his country for medical treatment since then. He has simply not had the strength to rule as he had previously. President Assad, by contrast, has not been injured and is able to continue devoting his full attention to remaining in power.
Second, Russia did not play a significant role in the transition from Saleh to his vice president in Yemen. It was the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries—especially Saudi Arabia—that were the most important external powers that facilitated this. Some in the West hope that because Russia provides important support to Damascus, Moscow is in a position to persuade Assad to step down like Saleh did. Leaving aside whether the Putin administration would even be willing to try doing this, it is by no means certain that Moscow has the ability to do so. Russia, after all, is not the Syrian regime’s only external supporter. Iran is another—and an arguably more important one. Tehran will back Assad whether or not Moscow continues to do so. Moscow understandably fears that if it tries to persuade Assad to step down at the West’s behest, Damascus will simply expel the Russians from their naval base in Tartus and turn all the more toward Iran and possibly China.
Third, the Western expectation that Russia will now seek political change in Syria because it is somehow embarrassed by the number of people that the Assad regime has killed is completely unrealistic. It must not be forgotten during Putin’s first term as president, Russian security forces killed over 150 people to end the Chechen takeover of a Moscow theatre in 2002, and over 380 people to end the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004. The Putin administration, then, does not share Western outrage over the killing of large numbers of civilians, but sees this as just part of the cost of defeating armed opponents. Moscow’s support for the Security Council condemnation of Syrian actions does not signal that it is moving toward the Western view of the Syrian government, but may instead be an attempt to show the West that Moscow is “reasonable,” and that its prevention of Security Council action against the Assad regime is not partisan but “considered” and “balanced.”
Finally, the “Yemen solution” doesn’t seem likely to work in Syria when it hasn’t even worked out yet in Yemen itself. It is true that Saleh stepped down, but much of his regime remains intact. His son is still in command of (partly thanks to American support) the best armed and trained security force in the country. Although the new president has dismissed some of them, Saleh loyalists remain in many key positions. Whether there will be a true political transformation in Yemen, then, remains to be seen.
At least in Yemen the armed forces are divided with important elements supporting the transition. In Syria, though, the leadership of the armed forces largely belongs to the same minority Alawite sect as the Assad family. Even if Assad steps down, then, the security forces will act to preserve Alawite minority rule in Syria. Indeed, the Alawite leaders of the military and security forces very much fear that they will be treated much like they have treated the Sunni majority if the latter ever comes to power, and thus are determined to prevent it from doing so.
The “Yemen solution,” then, is simply not an option for Syria. Russian leaders are undoubtedly aware of this, even if their Western counterparts are not.