Why the UNSC Resolution on Syria is Thoroughly Doomed to Fail
Politics and economics are complicated pursuits, and as such, everyone from experts to casual conversationalists has a tendency to compare complicated phenomena to comparable incidents, hoping to inject some order into the chaos. Is Occupy Wall Street like the Tea Party? Is the financial crisis of 2008 like the Great Depression? Is Egypt like Tunisia? Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad like Adolf Hitler?
These questions make for interesting debates but often obfuscate the matter at hand, reducing policy dilemmas to a cost-benefit analysis based on the most recent problem of a similar nature. Policymakers in economics and politics tend too often to make such simplifying comparisons. Too often our decisions are based on preventing the previous crisis instead of forecasting the next one.
This type of thinking is now being applied to the crisis in Syria from two different angles. There is currently a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution on the docket that would call for President Bashar Assad to step down and transfer power to his deputy.
On one side, the Russian Foreign Ministry, led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, argues against the resolution on the grounds that it will precipitate an international military intervention akin to that in Libya.
Coterminously, the United States and its European allies are supporting the measure, which would pave the way for a government of national unity. A similar deal has been implemented in Yemen. By no means is it unanimously popular or is it ensured to be effective. Brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the agreement has facilitated the departure of Yemen’s President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, into exile.
Here’s the problem: Syria is not Libya and Syria is not Yemen. Assad is neither Qaddafi nor Saleh.
Let’s start with Russia. Ostensibly its opposition to the UNSC resolution condemning Bashar Assad, who has killed well over 5500 of his citizens, amounts to invoking the sovereignty of a nation-state. The Libyan intervention irked the Russians, who felt that they were duped into supporting regime change by supporting a measure which was cloaked as a mandate to protect civilians. “I don’t think Russian policy is about asking people to step down. Regime change is not our profession,” said FM Lavrov.
The differences between Syria and Libya are staggering. A no-fly zone would not be the method of intervention in Syria since the majority of the fighting is waged on the ground and in urban environments laden with civilians. There is no unified armed Syrian rebellion. The Syrian crisis has lasted much longer and claimed more lives than the Libyan crisis when NATO intervened. The Libyan intervention swung the tide in favor of the rebels whereas an intervention in Syria would have much more of a burden in ousting Mr. Assad. Assad wears suits and Qaddafi wore eccentric tunics. Et cetera.
Not least of all, the resolution on the table regarding Syria would not necessarily lead to intervention at all. Few in Washington or Brussels are keen on intervention right now, not to mention some of the Syrian opposition. Russia has negotiated, offering support for resolutions condemning Assad so long as they equate the President with those protesting against him and proscribe any sort of future intervention. Other members of the UNSC have rejected the Russian counteroffer on the grounds that it would set a precedent for binding future resolutions.
The Russian invocation of Libya as a justification for opposing a resolution calling for Bashar al Assad to step down is disingenuous. Moscow wasn’t fooled into thinking the Libyan intervention wouldn’t put pressure on Qaddafi. The Colonel was simply less of an asset to Russian interests than is Mr. Assad.
Just as Chinese internet censors blocked the word ‘jasmine’ from internet searches after Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, Russia does not want to lend support to a principle (UNSC resolutions calling for regime change) that could trouble its own undemocratic leadership in the future. The Syrian port of Tarsus is also the Russian navy’s only outlet to the Mediterranean Sea and the Putin regime accrues lucrative profits from arms sales and other business with Damascus. With his return to the Kremlin approaching, Mr. Putin can win points by defying the West.
As for the other side of the coin, the resolution itself (besides the fact that it won’t transcend a Russian veto) is tragically flawed. It is modeled after the GCC-brokered peace deal, implemented on January 22nd, aimed at ending the political crisis in Yemen.
Yet the resolution has hardly ended the crisis definitively. Under the terms of the agreement, Yemen’s President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has left the country in order to seek “medical treatment” in the United States. He transferred power to his longtime deputy, which the Syrian UNSC resolution would also stipulate. In return he received immunity from prosecution.
There are a plethora of problems with the deal. Most importantly, it doesn’t bar Saleh from returning to Yemen or participating substantially in the upcoming “government of national unity.” He says that he will return to Sana’a after his treatment. Also, his deputy and vice-president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is the sole candidate in Yemen’s upcoming presidential elections on February 21st—hardly a sign of sweeping reform.
Furthermore, Saleh only accepted the GCC deal because it granted him immunity—as approved by the Yemeni parliament, which has enraged the street. It is morally dubious, and perhaps politically unstable, for Saleh not to face retribution for ordering the deaths of peaceful protesters.
What’s most galling about the debates among Security Council diplomats over the resolution and its wording is that nothing Bashar Assad has said or done over the past 11 months would indicate that he’d ever accept a Saleh-like deal. He was resolute and defiant in his speech on January 10th. He’s made it abundantly clear that reform, exile and surrender are not options—especially since he can cling to power with the army’s support so long as the international community supports non-intervention. As Tony Karon writes in TIME, “Assad is not about to heed a resolution put before the Security Council by the Arab League — and backed by Western powers — that bluntly demands his surrender, because that outcome does not reflect the balance of forces on the ground.”
What we have on our hands with Syria is a resolution, modeled simplistically after a highly flawed deal that treated a murderous autocrat gently, which will be vetoed by Russia, and would not have been accepted by Bashar al Assad anyway. Ironically, it seems that the Russians are rejecting a resolution on the grounds that its reminiscent of action that was largely successful (Libya) while the US and Europe are supporting it because it’s evocative of a measure that’s thoroughly problematic (GCC deal in Yemen).
So what should be done?
First, enough of the erroneous comparisons to other countries. We must learn from history but not be constrained by it. Many of the objections to foreign intervention in Syria are based on specious comparisons to Iraq circa 2003 (similar warnings were aired about Libya). Again, the differences are profound, not least of all because the Arab League has been somewhat punitive in dealing with Syria and could yet support more robust measures to dislodge Assad. Syria is not Libya, nor Yemen, nor Iraq.
Secondly, the United Nations is probably a dead end. Moscow and Beijing are not keen on intervention in Syria, and their vetoes would preclude a consensus for such action.
Thirdly, it’s not enough to condemn Assad and say that his fall is inevitable. As Steven Cook argues in the Atlantic, “if the international community wants to see the end of the Assad regime, as virtually everyone claims, then it is likely going to require outside intervention. Nothing that anyone has thrown at Damascus has altered its behavior.” These are indeed valid arguments against intervention, the most compelling being that the Syrian opposition has yet to unanimously embrace the idea itself. Cook rightly asks “at what point in the body count is international intervention deemed to be an acceptably worthwhile option that can have a positive effect on the situation? After Assad has killed 6,000 people? 7,000? 10,000? 20,000?”
In conclusion, once the situation evolves to the point where the Syrian opposition calls categorically for international help, the world must be ready to answer. Those who have bashed Assad verbally must be ready to act. Most of the Syrian National Council (SNC) now endorses intervention of some kind, but the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) is much more wary. An American-European-Arab League-Turkish cooperative effort is not unimaginable. It would circumvent Russia and China’s vetoes, as well as concerns about Western imperialism, the other most compelling argument against intervention. Moscow and Tehran may have allies in Damascus, but they would be unlikely to wage a proxy war to cement Assad’s rule in the face of an international coalition with broad legitimacy.
Other opponents of intervention say that military action in Syria is against US interests. “Let Syrians work it out,” the logic goes, or “we have enough problems of our own.” However, the toppling of the Assad regime is in the US interest—in the short-term, Iran would grieve the loss of its biggest ally. But on a more important and more abstract note, intervention is in the US interest precisely because it’s not in the US interest.
The US must alter its image in the Middle East—which is endemic and loathed—away from being a frigid manipulator solely in pursuit of its own self-interest. Liberalism is the new realism. It is in the United States’ long-term self-interest to forge a more positive relationship with the Arab street, the future stakeholders of Middle Eastern political affairs. Shadi Hamid writes that we must undertake the “difficult work of re-orienting U.S. foreign policy, to align ourselves, finally, with our own ideals.”
Most toxic is the thinking that Assad is the least worst option for Syria’s future. There are better alternatives than having his rule reach 2013, which would likely leave another 5,500 or more dead in his wake.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has beseeched the global community, and the UNSC, to resolve the Syrian crisis. Quoted in an article in Al Ahram, “The Council, he said, must be ‘united this time, speak and act in a coherent manner…reflecting the urgent wishes and aspirations of the Syrian people.’” Unfortunately, neither the Council nor the international community is united or speaking coherently at the moment.