Why is Russia protecting Syrian President Assad?

Russia is the spoiler as the international community tries to protect the Syrian people from their own leader, Bashar al-Assad. Despite growing calls from around the world for firm measures to oust Assad, Moscow shamelessly blocks the path to resolving the crisis.

European nations, notably France and Great Britain, as well as the U.S., have led efforts to bring Syria before the UN Security Council. But Russia, together with China, vetoed a resolution in October that condemned the regime and did not even call for sanctions.

Significantly, the Arab League has now joined the anti-Assad consensus. Its monitors fled Syria for their safety over the weekend. Syria’s Arab neighbors have concluded that Assad is irredeemable.

They seek Security Council endorsement of the Arab League plan, adopted several months ago and initially accepted by Assad, that calls on his regime to pull its armed forces out of Syrian cities and towns, stop the killings, and begin steps to transfer power. Yet even this move, an Arab initiative, finds a defiant Moscow supporting Assad politically and militarily.

Moscow has, in effect, for some time enabled Assad’s forces to carry out the most heinous deeds, even imprisoning and torturing children, according to a UN Human Rights Council report. More than 5,400 Syrians have died since the uprising began last March, and that toll is rising. "The government killing machine continues unabated," Qatar’s prime minister told the Security Council this week.

Whether motivated by a sincere commitment to sustaining the Assad regime, or by the enjoyment of frustrating its Western rivals on the world stage, Russia has needlessly sacrificed innocent lives and prolonged the conflict.

Moscow argues that such international pressure as economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., EU and some Arab nations will lead to civil war, and prefers to preserve the Assad regime. Russian leaders have called again and again for dialogue between the regime and its opponents, and offered to host such a face-to-face exchange in Moscow.

But the time for meaningful dialogue is long passed. It is unrealistic and indeed immoral to expect victims and survivors of the regime’s brutality to sit down with Assad’s henchmen. The UN human rights chief, President Obama, European leaders and the Arab League have one endgame in mind -- Assad must go in order for a new Syria to emerge.

The civil strife that Moscow so fears actually began weeks ago, thanks to its client, Assad. After months of relentless regime-instigated violence that instilled frustration and anger among Syrians, it is no wonder that some protestors, aided by army defectors, have taken up arms. The balance of power, though, remains with the Assad regime, which continues to enjoy political backing and a supply of arms from Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov disingenuously says that “we are not friends or allies of President Assad."

However, the Russian naval base at Tartus – the only such facility outside the FSU -- substantial arms sales and commercial ties are benefits of a strategic relationship spanning decades, beginning with Bashar's late father, Hafez. Moscow could try to leverage its influence with Syria, but prefers, as Lavrov says, to let the "Syrians themselves decide.”

And Russia also maintains that the UN has no business seeking “regime change," an apparent reference to Libya where Moscow contends the Western-Arab coalition went beyond the Security Council mandate to oust Qaddafi. But no one has been seeking a military intervention in Syria. The UN, however, does have a responsibility to find an effective formula to quell the violence and create the conditions for change.

Still, notwithstanding Russia’s uncompromising stance, support for a meaningful Security Council resolution has grown. The U.S. vowed after the Russian veto in October to try again, and the Arab League’s pushing for council action presents a new opportunity. A vote is expected by week’s end.

A meaningful Security Council resolution, of course, will not instantly end the violence. On the contrary, it likely could lead Assad to step up his violent assault on his own citizens, since that, so far, has been his response to any international criticism.

Indeed, the regime’s killings escalated when Arab League monitors were in the country. But, Security Council inaction will severely dampen the hopes of Syrian protesters, who have put their lives on the line and paid dearly.

Sadly, Russia holds the ultimate card at the UN. It could acquiesce to accepting a meaningful resolution that targets the Assad regime. Or it could negotiate hard for a watered-down measure bereft of sanctions, criticism of Assad, and, astonishingly, assigns equal culpability to both the regime and its opponents.

Or, if it cannot get enough votes to stop the resolution altogether, Russia could again veto. That would be a tragedy both for the Syrian people and for the Security Council itself, a body founded to assure world peace.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Media Relations.