Solving Syria: Instead of blue helmets, why not Russian and Chinese boots on the ground?

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By Sumantra Maitra,

Over a hundred people, most of them children and women were bayoneted to a slow, systematic and horrific death ostensibly by pro-governmental forces in the Syrian city of Houla, a few days back.

According to the UN Monitors, fewer than twenty people died from shelling and the others were summarily executed by pro-Assad militia. The Assad government obviously denied that, and even though there is no reason to trust the Syrian government as the voice of reason, truthfulness and democracy, the motive behind this brutality indeed seemed a bit shaky.

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Assad as they hold posters of men who they say were killed by pro-government security, in Dael near Deraa on May 28. /Reuters/Shaam News Network

What would the government achieve by killing children, other than more isolation? Surely the planners of the Syrian government are not that naïve to try to intimidate with this brutality of slow torturous death. They could have just bombed them, and blamed it on Al Qaida. Was it then really a false flag operation by Jihadi elements among the revolutionaries?

One can’t be hundred percent sure anymore that the revolutionaries are just peaceful protesters, after the Damascus bombing a few weeks back. The photos of tattered blood soaked body parts was signature Al Qaida, as was confirmed after a few days.

The brutal Assad was crooked enough to hijack the victim approach immediately. It is all very messed up on the ground, and no right minded analyst would try to accurately assess what is exactly happening, with the lines getting increasingly blurred, and the battle lines increasingly widened.

Meanwhile, as civilians continue to be butchered by one side or the other, and the instability spreading to Lebanon, time is running out before the trouble reaches Gaza forcing Israel to act, thereby bringing in a whole new equation.

For all that we know, diplomacy and multi-lateralism is failing in Syria. Kofi Annan did even worse than what he managed during his tenure in Rwanda and the Balkans, and Susan Rice’s storming out after a Russian veto, for all the rage it signified, is almost forgotten. So, how would a planner or a mediator with realist leanings try to work out this situation?

Here’s a thought. Invite Russian and Chinese peacekeepers in Syria. Invite both the countries. Let their boots be on ground this time. Before you discard me as a raving lunatic, here are the reasons why.

Before any mission, the objectives should be strictly assessed. The primary objective here should be to stop the bloodshed, immediately. And the West, with all its good intentions, is not being able to do it with Russian and Chinese opposition.

To stop further bloodshed, one needs to put a rock solid wall of battle-hardened combat fatigues in between the Syrian Army and Opposition rebels. And let’s be clear, the three hundred blue helmets under one good-hearted Norwegian won’t do any good. Now, if NATO or U.S. tries to intervene, either unilaterally or multilaterally, they will be instantly dubbed as imperialists or regime changers, with public opinion going south, with the Al Qaida elements turning on them, or they will be dubbed as failures if they actually manage another mess like Libya. Also, not to mention, Syrian forces are actually stronger and more competent than Gadhafi’s army, with more chances of casualties and losses for NATO.

In order to avoid that outcome, Russia and China should be asked to take the lead this time. Russia already has a naval base there, which is a major concern for Moscow. Given the scenario of a foreign intervention, they might lose their base and influence in the region. If they are asked to bring in boots, that will soothe their nerves. Assad also wanted the Russians to mediate, so his cooperation should not be a problem. Also, if they are asked to maintain peace, the burden of stopping the bloodshed or leashing Assad falls squarely on their shoulders.

If Russia avoids sending troops, then it doesn’t go well with the macho image of the new Russian administration under Putin and Lavrov. The Russians would be in no position to criticize any action later, after declining to take responsibility.

As for China, the PLA has never taken part in any major intervention in the last two decades, nor would they likely want to do so in the near future, alone. But alongside Russia they might be willing to shoulder the burden, as they have a huge amount of investment at stake too. Strictly from a realist perspective, there is also an added advantage.

The Chinese army, for all the hype, is untested. This would be a great opportunity to actually monitor in real time the insurrection managing, and asymmetric warfare capabilities of the PLA.

Now, in the circumstance of Sino-Russian forces being bogged down in mission creep or facing off with the pro-Sunni Islamist elements in the opposition, it will be their failure, and NATO would be absolved of another burden and bad propaganda.

If they do manage to stabilize the region, the West would be remembered for being bipartisan and keeping the people of Syria in mind before anything. And if they decline to take up the opportunity, they lose credibility when lecturing on the issue, or to stop a final, unilateral NATO action afterwards to draw the curtains on the drama.

As with all plans, one needs to keep in mind, there are factors, the “unknown unknowns”, which might tilt the balance any moment. But so far it seems to be the most logical approach, and without any breakthrough on any side, this is the closest “win-win” for the West that’s possible.

Unfortunately, to make this work, the egocentric contingency planners, from either side of the spectrum, would have to forget themselves and come to a deal, keeping strict and cynical realism at the back of their mind. That though, is the toughest of all problems.