05/30/2012 03:13 PM

The World from Berlin

'Only Russia Can Exert Influence on Syria'

Despite the expulsion of Syrian envoys from several Western countries on Tuesday and Wednesday, a military intervention in the country remains unlikely. Both Russia and China are strictly opposed and the US is skeptical as well. German commentators explore the alternatives.

On Tuesday, the diplomatic war began in earnest. With the United Nations citing indications that many of the 108 people killed in last Friday's massacre in Houla, Syria were executed by pro-government militiamen, several Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats. In a coordinated move, the United States, Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia, Bulgaria, Spain, Italy, France and Switzerland all told Syrian ambassadors in their countries that they would have to leave. Japan did the same on Wednesday.

There has been widespread international outrage over the bloodshed, in which dozens of children also lost their lives -- many of them, according to eyewitnesses, having been shot in the head at close range. Nevertheless, it appears unlikely that the UN will authorize a military intervention. Both China and Russia on Wednesday reiterated their opposition to such a move.

Their comments came as French President François Hollande indicated on Wednesday that he would not rule out the possibility of a military intervention in the country. "It is dependent on me and the others to convince the Russians and the Chinese" not to veto military action in the United Nations Security Council, Hollande said. "We cannot allow Syrian President Bashar Assad to continue massacring his own people." Hollande plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.

It seems unlikely that he will have any luck, though. Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Wednesday that Moscow remains categorically opposed to military intervention in Syria, Russian news agency Interfax reported. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that his country "opposes military intervention and does not support forced regime change." Even the US is against taking action, with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney saying that "we do not believe that further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action."

'Tipping Point'

The Houla massacre is thought to be the most horrifying slaughter so far in the months-long unrest in Syria. On Tuesday, the UN said that initial investigations concluded that fewer than 20 of those killed on Friday night lost their lives in the artillery bombardment launched by pro-regime fighters. Most of the rest were killed by summary executions, with eyewitnesses reporting gunmen sweeping through Houla stabbing and shooting victims to death.

It is clear, said UN rights spokesman Rupert Colville on Tuesday, "that this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in Houla, and at least a substantial part of it were summary executions of civilians -- women and children." He added that "at this point it looks like entire families were shot in their houses." The UN Human Rights Council announced on Wednesday that it plans to hold an emergency session on Friday to address the events in Houla.

Kofi Annan, special UN envoy to Syria, travelled to Damascus on Tuesday to urge Assad to stop the killing. After the meeting, he said the country was at a "tipping point" and urged Assad's troops and pro-regime militias to exercise restraint.

German commentators take a closer look at the situation again on Wednesday.

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The Syrian crisis has now reached a point which allows us to see how reality and diplomacy sometimes exist in parallel worlds. Diplomacy is the horrified statements from the foreign ministries; the expulsion of envoys who, as protocol would have it, must depart their host countries within 72 hours; and the international peace broker who really doesn't have anything left to broker, but shakes hands nonetheless. Reality is the tanks, the mortar fire and the mob which murders women and children on behalf of the Syrian regime."

"These two worlds no longer have anything to do with one another. The one is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations from April 18, 1961. The other is war. One shouldn't harbor any illusions: The tools of the one world will not be able to stop the murder in the other."

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"A civil war on the model of Lebanon is beginning to take shape in Syria -- one in which everyone seems to be fighting everyone. Ethno-religious motivations are mixing with political preferences, Shiite Alawis are being played against orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims. And then there are the al-Qaida groups, jihadists and all manner of mercenaries who are involved in this war -- and that's not counting influence from Iran and the Gulf states. The regime has intentionally stoked the conflict to present itself as a neutral guarantor of peace. In the wake of Houla, this lie has lost its last shred of credibility."

"After more than 10,000 dead in the Syrian revolt, only the most pigheaded can still believe that a political solution to the crisis can be achieved with the Assad regime. As such, the mission of Kofi Annan was predestined to fail because it presupposed that the Assad clan was able to arrive at a realistic assessment of the situation. But holding on to power is the only thing that counts for him. At any price."

"Not even the West is interested in a military intervention like the one in Libya, Russia and China also realize that fact. But a long civil war like the one that appears to be taking shape would likely hurt Russian and Chinese interests in the region more than a sudden overthrow of the despotic Assad clan. It is time to rethink things in Beijing and Moscow."

Financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"After the Houla massacre, the rifts are so deep and the anger so intense that any political efforts seem doomed to failure. Yet diplomacy nevertheless offers the only way out of the difficult situation. The UN cannot fulfil the task, at least not alone. It has neither the means nor the strength. Its half-hearted resolutions, appeals and threats have all missed their mark. As long as the UN Security Council does not speak powerfully with a single voice, Assad can continue his inhuman activities unhindered. The Europeans and Americans are too busy with themselves at the moment to even consider a dangerous military intervention."

"The only power that can exert a certain amount of influence on Damascus is Russia. In Syria, however, Russia has an ally that offers it strategically vital access to the Middle East and it cannot give that up. Which is why the Russian government continues to protect Assad, even if it has become visibly more uncomfortable for Moscow to do so. But even Moscow must slowly realize that a diplomatic solution, which Russia has insisted it wants, is no longer possible with Assad. Therefore, the only option is to force Assad to give up power. And only Moscow could do that."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Expelling an ambassador is the strongest weapon available to diplomacy. But that won't put an end to the public outrage (over the Houla massacre). The United Nations have pinpointed the pro-regime shabiha militia as being responsible for this crime against humanity. It might be that President Assad does not personally lead this group of fighters, but he is ultimately responsible when his people are murdered by marauding mercenaries. In Syria, the chain of command ends with him, the dictator. Personal weakness does not protect one from culpability."

"Nevertheless, it is right of UN special envoy Kofi Annan to cling to his peace plan. Because it is still not too late for a 'Yemeni solution,' which would involve the Assad clan stepping down in exchange for political exile. Some might find that dissatisfying because it would allow Assad to escape justice. But any other solution to the Syrian tragedy would cost a much greater price in bloodshed."

-- Charles Hawley


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