April 08, 2012, Sunday

The Syrian cauldron

The UN has estimated that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 9,000 people in the past year.

Around 300,000 people have become internally displaced, with tens of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring countries. Sustained by the loyalty of his Alawite community, Assad -- who also has in his hands (although has not yet used) some of the most sophisticated chemical-warfare capabilities in the world -- has acted ruthlessly to crush dissidence in Syria. His brutality has outraged the international community, but has not stopped him.

The UN Security Council has had its hands tied because of objections from Russia (and China). Russia is a key actor because of its bilateral leverage on Damascus and its veto power in the council. Russia and China have rejected UN sanctions and will never back military force to topple the Syrian regime. Russia seems to have three principal goals: to punish the West for Libya (Moscow continues to accuse the US and Europe of “tricking” it in March 2011 into abstaining on a Security Council resolution authorizing military force to protect Libyan civilians so that NATO could help rebels topple leader Muammar Gaddafi); to demonstrate that it is a global power that cannot be brushed aside; and to protect its own interests in Syria, including its naval port and arms sales.

However, possibly as a consequence of its increased isolation, Moscow did back the UN Security Council resolution calling on Assad to implement the recently penned peace plan of the joint UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan. Moscow stated all efforts to solve the crisis should be aimed at exclusively supporting this mission, viewing ultimatums or threats to this process as counterproductive.

As we know, Assad told Annan his military will withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas by the April 10 deadline. This step is key to the implementation of the six-point plan, which foresees the withdrawal of government forces from towns and cities followed by the withdrawal of rebel fighters. After this, all sides are to hold talks embracing an “inclusive,” Syrian-led political process. It falls short of an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside, a proposal Damascus and Moscow vehemently rejected.

While Assad agreed to the deadline, and has already claimed the removal of troops from certain areas, including Deraa, Idlib and Zabadani, opposition groups and others insist that tanks and troops remain. Furthermore, there have been worrying reports (following an increase in refugees) that with the approaching deadline there have actually been increased assaults by Assad’s forces. However, this is difficult to verify due to the tight restrictions on access by independent media.

Frankly, most people are very skeptical about Assad keeping his word, since all previous commitments and promises he has made since the beginning of hostilities have been little more than hot air. This was underlined by a statement from US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who said: “The US is concerned, and quite skeptical that the government of Syria will suddenly adhere to its commitments. In the event that it does not, we will be certainly consulting with colleagues on the Security Council as to what are appropriate next steps.”

But the question is what could those next steps be? Here, again, the result will depend to a large extent on Russia. However, given the fact that Moscow strongly supported Annan’s mission, in the event Annan reports back to the Security Council that Assad has failed to comply with the deadline and urges it to pass a resolution to pressure Damascus, it could prove rather difficult for Russia to ignore it.

Indeed, it seems we may already have seen a “shift” from Moscow. While at the beginning of last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia would block another attempt at a resolution in the UN Security Council, a few days later he had seemingly made something of a U-turn, stating that Russia could support a UN Security Council motion as long as it does not contain ultimatums to Assad’s government. Russia must be aware that if it maintains an intransigent position after supporting the Annan Plan, it risks further isolating itself, and the international community may be forced to search for possible solutions outside the UN arena. Still, it seems highly unlikely that a Libyan-style intervention air campaign is going to happen, simply because nobody (apart from US Senator John McCain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have apparently already begun to supply the rebels with weapons ) wants or can do it.

The real danger, therefore, is that Assad will comply with the peace plan but not fully. This action will probably serve to further divide the international community over what steps to take as a result and to reduce further the chances of Assad leaving power in the foreseeable future.

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