Despite all his troubles, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria can count his blessings. His steadfast ally, Russia, is fully behind him, no matter what atrocities his armed forces commit in the ongoing civil war in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin is assisting Damascus militarily and politically. Without Russia, Assad might already have lost the war and fled the country.
Aside from its muscular military commitment to Syria, which expressed itself manifestly when Putin sent a contingent of combat aircraft and support staff to Syria in 2015, Russia has been particularly protective of Assad’s regime at the United Nations. Since 2011, the year the war erupted, Russia has vetoed 11 Security Council resolutions critical of the Syrian government.
Late last week, within a 24-hour period, Russia scuttled two resolutions relating to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against rebel forces fighting to topple Assad.
First, Russia blocked a resolution, proposed by the United States and its allies, to allow the Joint Investigative Mechanism to continue working. Since its establishment two years ago, this panel has studied allegations of war crimes in Syria by the Syrian government and Islamic State, the jihadist organization.
Second, Russia vetoed a compromise Japanese resolution to keep the panel intact for the next 30 days so as to find a solution amenable to all Security Council members.
In defence of its position, Russia’s representative at the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia cynically claimed that the Joint Investigative Mechanism is being used as a propaganda tool to defame the Syrian government. He also said the panel has “disgraced itself” with shoddy work and false conclusions.
Countering Nebenzia’s specious claim, the American ambassador, Nikki Haley, said, “Russia can obstruct this council, but it can’t obstruct the truth.”
Since the outbreak of the war, the Syrian regime has relieved itself of the responsibility of acting within the norms of international law.
Syrian artillery and aircraft have launched indiscriminate attacks against civilian neighborhoods throughout Syria, and Russia has been complicit in these deadly barrages, which have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians.
In the summer of 2013, Syrian forces carried out a devastating chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds of Syrians. U.S. President Barack Obama had warned Syria of military reprisals if it deployed such weapons. Much to his discredit, Obama backed down at the last moment, failing to enforce his “red line.” Instead of ordering air strikes against Syria, as he had darkly hinted, Obama accepted a face-saving Russian proposal empowering the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to identify and destroy Assad’s cache of chemical weapons.
Syria supposedly destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons. But in actuality, Syria cheated, squirrelling away weapons without declaring them and manufacturing new ones.
Furthermore, Syria bombed Khan Sheikhoun, a village in rebel-held territory, last April. Syrian jets dropped lethal sarin gas on the villagers, killing nearly 100 civilians, including children. On President Donald Trump’s order, the United States fired 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian Air Force base from which the attack was launched.
In true form, Syria denied its involvement in this atrocity, and Russia, as usual, supported Damascus to the hilt.
About two months later, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released a report confirming that the nerve agent sarin had been used in the Khan Sheikhoun bombing. Its evidence was based on medical examinations of the victims, environmental samples and eyewitness interviews.
The organization did not assign blame for the attack, but on September 6, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry disclosed that Syrian Sukhoi-22 aircraft had carried it out. Its conclusion was based, in part, on interviews with victims, eyewitnesses, logs of aircraft movements and analysis of satellite photographs.
On October 26, a second United Nations commission issued a report blaming the Syrian Air Force for the bombing. Speculation abounded that its findings might induce Russia to exert pressure on Syria, but this has proven to be wishful thinking.
“Time and again, we see independent confirmation of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime,” Haley said after the latest United Nations report was released. “Despite these independent reports, we still see some countries trying to protect the regime. That must end now.”
One month on, Russia still tolerates Syrian violations of the rules of war. With its veto of two Security Council resolutions condemning Syria of war crimes, Moscow has given Assad and company carte blanche to do whatever they wish in Syria.
Russia is also turning a blind eye to attacks by Syrian government forces in four newly-created de-escalation zones, even though Putin and Trump recently affirmed their importance as “an interim step to reduce violence in Syria.”
It’s clear Russia is doing whatever it takes to protect and preserve Assad’s odious regime. Shame on Putin.