What will it take to convince Putin to change course?

Nepalese attend a protest organized by Amnesty International outside U.N. offices in Kathmandu.
Nepalese attend a protest organized by Amnesty International outside U.N. offices in Kathmandu. (NIRANJAN SHRESTHA / AP)
Posted: June 15, 2012

This week - just as new revelations emerged of Syrian regime massacres of women and children - Moscow ordered the harshest measures against its own political opposition since Vladimir Putin first took power.

What do the Syrian and Russian crackdowns have in common? The answer holds the key to preventing a Syrian bloodbath that will unsettle the entire Middle East.

It's no accident that the Kremlin targets domestic critics even as it props up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow denied Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's charge that it supplied attack helicopters to Damascus. But Russian President Putin is deeply hostile to revolutions from below, whether at home, in former Soviet satellites, or in the Middle East.

In the age of YouTube, Putin, who aspires to European leadership, can't exercise the same brutality at home that his forces displayed in Chechnya - or that he endorses in Syria. That, at least, represents progress.

But his mind-set was fully displayed by this week's raids in Moscow: Russian police banged on doors of key political opposition leaders at 7 a.m. on the day of a major antigovernment demonstration.

Kalashnikov-toting guards stood watch, while investigators seized computers, cellphones, cash, and personal correspondence. All this just after the Kremlin rammed through a law imposing draconian fines on anyone taking part in an "unapproved" demonstration.

In case the threat wasn't sufficiently obvious, editors of the courageous Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed this week that Russia's chief investigator (who probes major crimes) had threatened the life of its deputy editor. The newspaper is known for its daring coverage of Kremlin corruption, and two of its star reporters have already been murdered. The editors believe, but can't prove, that the killings were sanctioned by the Kremlin.

Putin publicly derided one of the victims, Anna Politkovskaya, just after her death. She had heroically reported on Russian human-rights violations in Chechnya, where Russian forces killed thousands of civilians in their war against Chechen rebels.

You get the picture: The autocratic Putin detests any sort of rebellion from below. Moreover, he attributes all such revolts to the machinations of outside powers - especially the United States.

To be fair, the Kremlin has good reason to help Assad retain power. Damascus is Moscow's only Mideast ally; it imports Russian weapons and provides Moscow with port facilities on the Mediterranean. Moreover, Russia - like the West - fears an Islamist regime might replace the secular Assad.

But Putin's allergy to popular unrest blinds him to the strength of the Syrian rebellion. As revolts ripple across the Arab world, the majority of Syrian Sunnis have tired of 40 years of dictatorship by the Assad family, and by the minority Alawite (Shiite) sect to which it belongs.

Because it underestimated the strength of the resistance, the Kremlin missed the chance to limit the killing. Given its role as a key Syrian ally, Moscow might have squeezed the Assad regime to acquiesce to a peaceful transition. Instead, Moscow insisted that the rebels acquiesce to a deal that offered only token concessions.

Syrian opposition activists tell me that the Russian Embassy in Washington has scheduled several meetings with different factions of the external opposition. "The Russians offer power-sharing with Assad," says a leading Syrian human-rights and pro-democracy activist, Ammar Abdulhamid. "They want to push the opposition to talk to the regime."

Abdulhamid said Russian Embassy officials "told opposition activists: 'The Americans won't help you. You had better come to us.' "

Syrian activists regard the Russian proposals as a mere face-saver for Assad. Indeed, the Kremlin firmly believes the Assad regime can survive the current upheavals.

"Russia doesn't want Assad to go," I was told by Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "It's impossible to make him go without thousands going with him. It's a regime still supported by a considerable number of people, including Syrian minorities."

Naumkin confirms that Russian officials "don't think the United States is determined to do anything" to unseat Assad. That belief strengthens Putin's conviction that the Syrian revolt can be crushed.

Whether the Russian leader's eyes can be opened to reality is now the key question. Syrian activists here and in Lebanon say Putin's convictions won't change unless he's convinced Russia is backing a loser.

To convince Putin, they say, the United States will have to play a more proactive role, helping to coordinate disparate opposition factions inside and outside Syria, and ensuring that rebel fighters receive weapons to combat tanks and helicopters. (Despite Russian claims, the United States is not directly supplying weapons.)

The activists also say, correctly, that it is too late to prevent armed rebellion - or to save the Assad regime. The only question remaining is whether there might still be a managed transition that prevents all-out sectarian warfare.

The answer to that question depends on the mind-set of Vladimir Putin. So far there are few signs he can be convinced the Syrian revolt is a genuine outpouring that cannot be stopped.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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