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Thursday, June 9, 2011

No good options on Syria for global powers


A man with a Syrian flag draped across his shoulders looks at a man wearing a mask of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad during a demonstration in front of the International Criminal Court office in The Hague. (File Photo)

A man with a Syrian flag draped across his shoulders looks at a man wearing a mask of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad during a demonstration in front of the International Criminal Court office in The Hague. (File Photo)
As the UN Security Council debates a resolution condemning Syria’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, the real message of the European diplomatic effort is that the international community has no good options.

By circulating a draft resolution that risks a Russian and/or Chinese veto if put to a vote, Britain and France backed by the United States want to be seen to be doing something against what are undoubtedly horrendous crimes being committed by President Bashar Al Assad’s security forces.

They also hope that their move, even if the resolution is knocked down in the Council, will make it increasingly difficult for Russia and China to protect Mr. Assad.
Finally, the US and the Europeans would like to engineer a situation in which a dialogue between Mr. Assad and his detractors is possible.

That may be a tall order. The resolution, if anything, while deliberately weak to make it more palatable to Russia and China, also reflects US and European ambiguity toward Mr. Assad. Despite French Foreign Minister Alain Joppe’s declaration earlier this week that Mr. Assad had lost his legitimacy to rule Syria, the furthest any Western leader has gone until now, the US and Europe still prefer to see a resolution to the Syrian crisis that includes rather than excludes Mr. Assad. Western nations fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or other forces less predictable and perhaps more hostile to Western objectives of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace, containing Iran and ensuring regional stability would fill the vacuum that would be created by Mr. Assad’s departure.

New evidence of Syrian brutality with pictures of a second teenager having been brutally tortured and killed by Syrian security forces and an expected even tougher crackdown on the northern town of Jisr al-Shoghour and other centers near the Turkish border is likely to stiffen opposition revolve and propel it toward moving from peaceful to armed resistance rather than cow it into compromising with the man they want to oust.

The US and Europe has also done little to rebuild confidence with Russia and China in an effort to forge a united front against Mr. Assad that doesn’t allow him to play one side against the other. Like the US and Europe, Russia and China are abhorred by Mr. Assad’s brutality and have an interest in preserving regional stability to the degree possible amid widespread anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and violent confrontations not only in Syria, but also in Libya and Yemen.

Nonetheless, Russia and China are like a child burnt. They don’t want to be burnt a second time. Both countries accuse NATO of violating the Security Council resolution endorsing the imposition of a no-fly-zone in Libya to protect civilians by seeking to engineer the toppling of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. It is an issue the US and Europe could address but fear that by doing so in any serious way could limit their freedom of action in Libya.

More difficult is Russian and China’s underlying concern. Both nations feel comfortable dealing with authoritarian regimes, see Syria as a bastion against Western influence in the Middle East and fear that successful protests in the region could give segments of their own population ideas.

That last concern was reinforced by last month’s wide-ranging Middle East policy by US President Barack Obama in which he swung the United States squarely behind Middle Eastern and North African protesters and endorsed the principle of change away from authoritarian rule across the region.

The international community’s impotence raises broader questions as the Middle East and North Africa head into a summer that promises to be increasingly ugly, brutal and bloody. The continuous news of mounting deaths, increasing violence and ever greater atrocities puts the international community and Western nations in particular under pressure to do something rather than stand idly by. Sanctions like those slapped on Mr. Assad and his cohorts and verbal condemnations help isolate brutal leaders but change little on the ground.

Even if Western nations were to resolve their ambiguous attitude men like Mr. Assad, the experience of Libya as that of Afghanistan and Iraq calls into question the effectiveness of military action. Military action in Iraq and Libya so far failed to spark the kind of dissent that would force a leader determined to cling to power at whatever cost out of office or remove him from power. It could moreover like in the case of Libya effectively split a country and create a stalemate, certainly if military intervention is limited.

On a political level, military intervention would likely threaten the very essence of the Arab revolt against authoritarian rule that was born out of a desire to reassert dignity and rid the region of oppressive leaders perceived to be puppets of foreign powers. As a result, it could taint the very people putting their lives on the line to effect change and hamper the rise of credible, democratic forces that could lead their country towards achieving greater political freedom and economic prosperity.

In effect, the brutal crackdowns on protesters in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world have created a political minefield that Western nations have yet to figure out how to traverse. They may well discover that there is no good way of doing so.

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