Skip to main content

Only Russia, China can stop carnage in Syria

By Asher Kaufman, Special to CNN
May 28, 2012 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, center, meets with Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, U.N .mission chief in Syria, left, in Damascus on Monday.
U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, center, meets with Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, U.N .mission chief in Syria, left, in Damascus on Monday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Asher Kaufman: It's time to call turmoil in Syria a civil war, with extreme violence on each side
  • But regime's forces are far better equipped and organized than the opposition, he says
  • Kaufman: Bashar al-Assad gets heavy-duty support, especially from Russia and China
  • Russia and China must be convinced it's not in their interest to back al-Assad, he says

Editor's note: Asher Kaufman is associate professor of history and peace studies and the director of doctoral studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Kaufman's research and writing focus on the history of conflict, national identity and society and culture in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. His latest book, "Contested Frontiers: Cartography, Sovereignty, and Conflict at the Syria, Lebanon, Israel Tri-Border Region," will be published in the spring of 2013 by the Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

(CNN) -- Some observers have been careful not to name the violence in Syria a civil war, lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well, the child has to be called by its name.

The violent turmoil has turned into an asymmetric civil war, where the Syrian military and pro-government militias on one hand and opposition forces on the other are using extreme violence, not only against each other but also against civilians suspected of being sympathetic to one camp or the other. The civil war is asymmetric because government forces are far better equipped, organized and mobilized than the opposition.

The latest expression of the unfolding brutality of this civil war is the massacre of more than 100 unarmed civilians, half of whom were children, in the Sunni village of Houla, a center of anti-government activity.

Asher Kaufman
Asher Kaufman

Reports are unclear as to whether the culprits were Syrian military units or pro-government militias, the Shabeeha, as they are called in Syria. The United Nations has also been careful not to point a finger at any side. But the U.N. stand is a result of Russian and Chinese support for the Syrian government, which compelled the Security Council to draft a diluted statement acceptable for all members of the council. But the kind of weapons, the systematic mode of operation and countless testimonies all point to Bashar al- Assad's regime, which is upping the ante in its war against the opposition forces and civilians suspected of being their supporters.

The civil war is asymmetric for another reason. First, although the Syrian government has been put under extreme international pressure, it still receives unconditional logistical support from Iran and Hezbollah. Its diplomatic support from Russia and China -- some reports also indicate that Russia sends arm shipments to the Syrian army -- provides assistance for al-Assad's regime to carry on with its onslaught.

The opposition, on the other hand, does not have the same unconditional international backing. Although Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have committed to support the opposition by arming its forces, their support is not yet a match to the kind of assistance provided by al-Assad's allies.

The search for answers in Houla
Syrian: Dead baby had pacifier in mouth
U.N. delegates dispute massacre cause
Syrians protest massacre

Other international supporters of the opposition, including Western countries, have been reluctant to take the support a step further and commit themselves to the kind of military operation that brought down Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, or even less so, to the establishment of a humanitarian corridor along Syria's borders. As long as al-Assad continues to receive regional and international support, his regime will be able to stay in power and have the upper hand in this civil war.

The civil war is asymmetric for a third reason. Al-Assad's regime still enjoys a cohesive leadership and is in full control of its military. Its objectives are also clear -- surviving politically and personally and maintaining control over the country. Conversely, Syrian opposition is divided into rival groups that do not share an organized agenda, have different objectives and have been unable to coordinate their efforts. So, nearly a year and a half after the start of the uprising, the opposition still does not pose a serious challenge to the regime.

The U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, who is in Damascus, was also careful not to put the blame on any side, again reflecting the political dynamics in the United Nations between supporters and opponents of al-Assad. Annan believes that his six-point plan is still the only workable road map to stop the violence.

Because it is the only plan on the table, Annan is probably correct. But since the conflict in Syria has evolved into a full-fledged civil war, the questions are no longer about political reforms or cooperation between the opposition and the government to stop the violence and rebuild Syria. Rather it is the actual physical survival of al-Assad, his family and his supporters. It is also about a complete overhaul of the power structure that has been in place in Syria for more than 40 years.

Given this bleak reality, the only way to put an end to the violence in Syria is by working with those who support al-Assad's regime from the outside. Russia and China need to be convinced that it is in their best interest to bring down the regime and that this is the only way to move forward in this crisis. Once this happens, Iran may also be willing to give up on its ally.

Time is running out, with the beginning of spillover to Lebanon, as indicated in ethnic clashes last week in Tripoli tied to the strife in Syria. It is crucial for the two powers to recognize that with the global leadership that they claim to possess comes responsibility to interfere proactively in such cases of humanitarian crisis.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Asher Kaufman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT