That sound coming from Syria these days is the sound of diplomatic doors slamming shut as the country lurches toward all-out sectarian civil war. If you can hear it over the sound of government artillery shells blasting civilians in Homs…
One of these doors slammed a week ago when Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council resolution put forward by the Arab League, which called for Syria’s president Bashar al Assad to step aside in favor of a transitional government. Russia considers Assad a friend and customer, and therefore didn’t want to side with his enemies. China never likes the idea of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. The United States and other western powers pushed forward a resolution that Russia was sure to veto (an unwise course in my opinion), thereby giving up the potential to deliver a united message to Assad from the international community.
Assad responded by stepping up a lethal assault on neighborhoods of Homs that oppose his rule. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights today called it “an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force,” addressing the UN General Assembly where Saudi Arabia today took the case against Syria. Unfortunately nobody needs to slam the General Assembly door closed because that body has no power to do anything about the situation (as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon politely reminded the Saudis).
Yesterday the Arab League officially terminated its observer mission in Syria, another door closed. Instead it is now proposing a joint UN-Arab League observer mission in Syria. (Observers are unarmed peacekeepers, arguably the weakest form of peacekeeping force.) The proposal faces three big challenges: (1) Peacekeeping forces require the consent of the host government, which Syria says it will not grant; (2) They require authorization by the Security Council, where Russia may again use its veto; and (3) They generally can work only after a cease-fire is in place, lest they fall into a Bosnia-style dilemma of “keeping the peace where there’s no peace to keep.” So the peacekeeping door is probably firmly shut for the moment.
A cease-fire itself is no closer than ever. The opposition won’t negotiate with the regime, at least not while the killing continues. The regime does not want a cease-fire while it’s trying to use massive force to put down the opposition.
And so the violence escalates, as the government intensifies its crackdown and nonviolent protests slowly morph into an armed insurgency. Turkey and Saudi Arabia appear likely to support the opposition with arms and money, while Iran and Russia will do the same for the government.
During the Cold War, civil wars around the world were larger and longer because of the support pumped into each side by the opposing superpowers. These proxy wars faded away twenty years ago, and that is one important reason why levels of war violence have been lower around the world. But now, there is a new prospect of big powers fueling both sides in a proxy war in Syria. The fault line in Syria runs right down the Sunni-Shi’ite divide that pits Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on one side (backed by Russia) against Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and most of the Arab League on the other (backed by the United States). Right under that fault line sits the world’s most important pool of oil, the one resource without which the world economy cannot function.
What is to be done? Well, the last deal that had legitimacy all around was the Arab League agreement with Syria last December 19 that let the monitors in and called for pulling back Syrian forces from cities, starting negotiations with the opposition, and giving human rights workers and journalists access to Syria. At the time, opposition leaders said it was just a stalling tactic by Assad, which was probably true, but nonetheless this agreement — especially the demand to pull forces back from cities under assault today — is the basis for moving forward, because Assad already agreed with it and Russia therefore can’t really oppose it.
With some effort, the western powers could line up Russian and Chinese support to put the stamp of the UN Security Council on this demand to pull out of the cities — not the demand that Assad step down — and then push measures to induce Assad to comply. Opposition leaders should be pressured to join negotiations for a cease-fire (it’s in their interest as the party being blasted), and if one can be achieved then the international community should move quickly to insert a UN peacekeeping force (I’m not so sure a joint force with the Arab League is the best way to go, given its lack of neutrality).
It may be that such an approach would fail to stop the slide into a sectarian civil war. It may fail to stop Assad’s slaughter of civilians, and on the other hand if it does stop that slaughter the Assad regime may not be able to stay in power, and a new strategy will be needed to hold the country together under a transitional government. In other words, the outcome probably will not actually be a stable cease-fire with an international peacekeeping force. But this is still the step to try next order to move forward — the step that U.S. policymakers skipped past in bringing to the UNSC what amounted to a demand for Assad’s resignation. Arming the opposition would be a disaster. Waiting and hoping is not likely to improve things. Playing “make Russia look bad” does not help the Syrians.
It is very worrisome that the Syrian conflict could ignite actual war between countries, in an unstable region at a pivotal moment, and with all that oil on the line. To my way of thinking, the best way to prevent this is to line up the international community for united, forceful diplomatic action and focus directly on reducing the violence, not just on changing the regime.
U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, recently told Foreign Policy magazine that the conflict with Russia over Syria (and Iran) did not necessarily portend a return to the Cold War. She pointed to successful cooperation in the UNSC on Iran and North Korea sanctions, the independence of South Sudan, and the UN support of the Afghan and Iraqi governments. “There are going to be issues that are difficult. We’ve had our share of those of late and they … divide us and even get rancorous. But I don’t think is a fair characterization of the body of work that we’ve been doing over the last several years…” Point well taken — now let’s kick that U.S.-Russian cooperation into gear to steer Syria away from civil war.