Incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin, after taking stock of his first days of his third presidency, concluded that Moscow’s handling of the al-Houla massacre and Syria’s ongoing collapse into civil war will go down as a Russian foreign policy failure. He personally comes out of the policy as the patron of a bloodthirsty tyrant.
The Kremlin first tried presenting the slaughter of 108 people Friday and Saturday, among them 49 children and 34 women, as the work of unknown non-military bands, partly corroborating the Assad regime’s claim of terrorism.
This line was quickly abandoned and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was told Monday, May 28, to assign responsibility to “two sides” at his joint news conference in Moscow with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
But the information coming out of the Houla disaster area knocked that line on the head too: It turned out that the massacre was perpetrated by the town’s Alawites. Their victims were taken unprepared for their neighbors’ attacks, unlike the Sunni Muslims of Homs, Hama and Idlib and similarly mixed community towns, and mercilessly slaughtered in their homes by rampaging Alawites wielding knives, shot guns and pistols.
Syria has thousands of small and large mixed towns and villages divided by barricades manned by local militias – some for and some against Assad. The Houla massacre is therefore apt to be repeated across the country, plunging it into a full-blown civil and sectarian bloodbath.
Moscow is beginning to fear that Russia may be stigmatized as an accessory to this horror – and especially the foreign policy choices made by the new president.
Lavrov tried to save his government’s reputation by declaring out of the blue that Moscow no longer backs Bashar Assad and his regime and fully endorses the UN envoy Kofi Annan’s mission.
Annan was back in Damascus Tuesday holding talks with the Syrian ruler. It his hard to see how he can salvage even a vestige of his mission when the Syrian ruler has broken every commitment he made from the word go a month ago.
The other step decided by the Kremlin was to quietly order the Russian arms ship Professor Katsman to stop unloading its cargo at the Syrian port of Tartus, sail west and wait for fresh orders after the furor dies down. President Putin is clearly floundering before deciding on his next steps with regard to Syria and calculating to the last figure the cost of supplying the world’s most hated despot with arms and spreading a diplomatic net under his feet.