Despite Arab League monitors in Syria, the death toll of the regime’s brutal crackdown on protestors is rising. The situation in Syria raises the question: Why did the United Nations authorize an intervention in Libya, at the mere threat by former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi to slaughter his people, but remains idle while Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has already massacred over 5,000? Criticism that NATO overstepped its boundaries in Libya to orchestrate regime change rather than merely protect citizens does play a part, but the real story is more complicated.
In essence, the Assad regime has some powerful allies, and also benefits from the fact that a misstep in Syria could upset a precarious peace in the region.
To begin with, Syria has cultivated a close relationship with Russia, which has the power to veto all UN Security Council resolutions. Russia has spearheaded opposition to Council action on Syria, and—along with China—vetoed a toothless resolution in October that condemned the violence. Facing landmark protests in advance of its own March elections, Russia is careful to resist outside support for opposition movements. Russia is also seizing the opportunity to harness nationalist bitterness against U.S. hegemony, and demonstrate the power of the BRIC bloc of nations as a force to be reckoned with. This has led to a war of words between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Russia’s own UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin. For its part, China continues to advocate a peaceful solution between the regime and protestors, whom the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily newspaper routinely calls “terrorists.” China is also wary of any Western intervention to protect citizens, considering that it suppressed an estimated 180,000 protests in 2010 alone.
The resulting deadlock suits Damascus just fine. Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Minister Walid al-Moallem of Syria was so confident that Russia and China would block action against the Assad regime, that he told the opposition in November, “The Russian and Chinese stances, which earned the respect and gratitude of the Syrian people, will not change.”
Without UN support, an intervention is unlikely, and would be unadvisable. Assad has a “firm hold” on the loyalties of Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite power in Lebanon. A fierce conflict in Syria could pull one or both into the fight. With U.S.-Iranian tensions at new highs, and having exhausted public support for war in the Middle East, the Obama administration seems unlikely to use armed force in Syria without the Council’s imprimatur, even alongside a “coalition of the willing.” (China and Russia have no doubt factored this into their opposition to UNSC action.)
But if the unrest in Syria boils over, the consequences would be significant. The nation borders Israel, Iraq and Jordan, NATO ally Turkey, and finally Lebanon, which could see its precarious stability threatened by civil war in Syria. Reporting from near the Syrian-Lebanese border, NPR correspondent Deborah Amos describes how the conflict is dividing Syria’s Alawite sect of Shiite Islam and its Sunni Muslims, raising the specter of a sectarian war that threatens regional stability.
And yet, the Security Council remains deadlocked.
The one group that might be able to break the impasse is the Arab League. Its support for international intervention in Libya was a pivotal factor in persuading the major emerging powers India and Brazil (as well as China and Russia) to abstain in the critical UNSC vote authorizing “all necessary means” to defend Libyan civilians. The mandate of the Arab League’s observers in Syria ends today, however, and their presence has not persuaded the Assad regime to cease its violence against citizens. The League’s chief will present their report on Saturday. The regional group is also set to weigh a thirty-day extension of the observers’ mission on Sunday, potentially allowing them to kick the can down the road—and hope that Assad is suddenly inspired to show mercy. Qatar has actually proposed sending Arab troops to keep the peace, but official consideration of such an operation is not on the League’s agenda for this weekend and unlikely to come to pass.
Even if the Arab League appeals for international assistance to stabilize Syria, it would be a mammoth effort to force approval through the UN Security Council. China, which has taken a more measured tone than Russia on international action on Syria, could still emerge as a wild card. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao is on a six-day tour to the Middle East, announcing high-profile cooperation initiatives like “the largest expansion by any oil company in the world,” with Saudi Arabia, as well as stopping in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in particular, favor intervention in Syria, and could coax China into abstaining for the sake of regional stability. Building majority support on the fifteen-member UN Security Council for action against Syria would not be difficult. Russia might still cast a lonely veto, but the diplomatic cost would be high.