The US and Russia today clashed at the U.N. Security Council over international intervention in Syria, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria’s president to “pull back from the brink of a deeper catastrophe.”
“The majority of Syrians support some kind of intervention, preferably led by Arab or Turkish troops, and backed up by NATO,” said an anti-regime activist in Aleppo. “There is a sense here that this violence will not stop, and the regime will not halt its bloody crackdown unless it faces tangible action or threats of action.”
“The question is not what Syrians want, it’s what the international community is prepared to do, which at this time is next to nothing.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Russia and China to support the Arab League’s “humanitarian and political approach” to resolving the crisis.
“The international community should say with one voice — without hesitation or caveat — that the killing of innocent Syrians must stop and a political transition must begin,” Clinton told the Security Council.
“The Syrian people deserve the same opportunity to shape their future that the Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans now enjoy,” she added.
But Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticized “risky recipes of geopolitical engineering” and took a swipe at Western and Arab states for “making hasty demands for regime change, imposing unilateral sanctions designed to trigger economic difficulties and social tensions in the country.”
Fears that foreign intervention will provoke a sectarian civil war are not s legitimate concern, says Rime Allaf, a Syrian analyst at the London-based Chatham House foreign affairs think tank.
“The whole concept of civil war and of sectarian strife has been one which has been marketed by the regime,” she observes. “There’s absolutely no basis – that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen – but there’s no basis at this point in time to believe that such a thing would happen.”
The international community should focus on three goals: ending the violence, securing access for humanitarian aid, and initiating a political transition, said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
“We try to convince Russia and China that it is a question of humanitarian solidarity to stand with the people in Syria … (who) do nothing else but ask for freedom and human rights,” he said. “I hope Russia and China no longer will be on the wrong side of history.”
Observers fear that the deteriorating violence will play into the hands of extremist forces and end any prospects of a democratic transition.
“The longer the conflict continues the more you will get people looking to impact it through violence and terrorism,” says a senior European diplomat.
Such sentiments echo the fears of Jeffrey D. Feltman, the State Department’s senior diplomat for the region.
“The longer this goes on, the deeper the sectarian divisions, the higher the risks of long-term sectarian conflict, the higher the risk of extremist” he told a Senate hearing last week.
At the same hearing, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. James N. Mattis said that a democratic government would be “the biggest strategic setback” in 25 years for Iran, Assad’s principal ally.
But Syria’s friends have remained steadfast while its opponents have failed to threaten the regime, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. This imbalance “has made it possible for the leadership to continue to live in denial, apparently oblivious to the depth of a crisis it is unable or unwilling to resolve”.
The absence of a unified opposition movement has complicated international efforts to support Syria’s democratic forces.
“Disunity among the opposition has weakened it and has made many Western countries reluctant to recognize it as the sole representative of the Syrian people,” says Lebanese analyst George Alam. “Opposition forces that led uprisings in other Arab countries, such as Libya, were more united than the Syrians. That’s why they gained Western support and recognition quickly.”
The opposition’s weakness has also plagued efforts to establish a government-in-waiting and raised fears of a post-Assad Syria degenerating into a failed-state, say analysts.
“By decapitating the state, the killing will likely increase without a government in waiting ready to step in,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma “Today that government in waiting has not emerged. There is no military on the ground prepared to substitute for the Syrian army.”
But, Landis suggests, “As the military opposition in Syria grows, a central leadership could emerge from the battlefield……If it can begin to coordinate the military resistance effectively, it might gain recognition as the Syrian opposition’s legitimate leadership.”
Meanwhile, calls for international intervention continue to swell, as the Project for Middle East Democracy notes:
U.S Senator John McCain (R-AZ) called for U.S. air strikes to halt the violence in Syria. White House Spokesman Tommy Vietor said President Barack Obama would focus on diplomacy. Hussein Ibish said the U.S. adopted a “neurotic” approach to the Syrian conflict. French Ambassador to Syria Eric Chevallier passed through Lebanon and Canada closed its embassy in Damascus. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said an envoy would discuss changing the latest U.N. draft resolution which Russia deemed unacceptable. China issued a six-point plan calling for a political solution. Human Rights Watch criticized the U.A.E.’s expulsion of Syrians who protested in Dubai. Kofi Annan plans to travel to Damascus and stressed the necessity of a unified position on the crisis. The Obama administration and its international partners began serious discussions about potential military involvement.
As the ICG has warned, engaging with Mr Assad without the kind of international backing that can sway the Syrian leadership means it is “virtually certain that Assad would use the special envoy’s visits to present himself as an indispensable interlocutor, issue empty pledges and play for time”.
POMED is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.