Monthly Archives: February 2012

Syria: Hamas, Annan, and the Friends

Everyone is getting in on the action in Syria these days.

First of all, the Islamist Palestinian faction Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and 1.5 million people, has switched sides in the Syria conflict. In so doing, Hamas has erased the one major exception to the rule that regional alliances follow the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. Hamas had been a Sunni Islamist organization in an alliance with a Shi’ite-oriented bloc made up of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

Until recently Hamas’s top leader lived in Damascus under protection of the Assad government, but recently he moved out of Syria, and Hamas has sided with the Syrian opposition. The leader’s latest statement was delivered in Egypt, which may become Hamas’s new external supporter, replacing Iran. Hamas’s roots originally grew out of Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood, which made it the enemy of Egypt’s government under Hosni Mubarak, who had repressed the Brotherhood for decades in Egypt. Now the Brotherhood in Egypt dominates the new parliament and is likely to see Hamas more sympathetically.

Meanwhile, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been appointed as the UN/African Union joint special envoy to the Syria conflict. It is a good choice, as he commands respect globally as a moral voice and knows the Assad regime from past interactions. Annan’s last such mission helped quell the violent aftermath of disputed elections in Kenya in 2008. Annan held talks with the foreign ministers of Iran and France, in Geneva where he is attending the opening of a UN human rights session. Syria’s best hope is some kind of cease-fire and negotiated agreement, perhaps similar to Yemen’s. If that is ever to be, someone has to get the two sides to an agreement, and if anyone can (which is unclear), Annan can.

And in Tunis on Friday, the “Friends of Syria” had its first meeting, with the major countries opposed to Assad in attendance.  The group recognized the opposition Syrian National Council as “a” (not necessarily the only) legitimate representative of the Syrian people. One problem the Friends face is the division and lack of coordination in the Syrian opposition. They called on the UN to prepare for a peacekeeping mission in Syria if the need for one arises. (Currently there is no peace to keep.)

Hillary Clinton took the occasion to call out Russia and China for vetoing the recent UNSC resolution that would have called for Assad’s resignation. Clinton called the vetoes “despicable.” China has responded by calling that kind of language “unacceptable” and by reminding Clinton that, basically, the USA has a lot of nerve criticizing others about Syria after what it did in Iraq right next door.

In Syria itself, the grim news keeps coming, especially for the civilians being shelled and sniped at constantly in the city of Homs, the heart of the opposition. Incongruously, in the middle of this massacre, Syrians voted by a 9-to-1 margin in a referendum to approve a revised constitution — a vote dismissed as meaningless by the Syrian opposition and the West. The bombardment of Homs killed two western journalists last week, and efforts to evacuate the wounded have been largely unsuccessful so far. The situation is getting only more desperate, and “the whole world is watching” thanks to cellphone footage posted to the Internet.

European Union countries have added new sanctions against the Syrian regime. Economic sanctions might help, but seem unlikely to cause the regime to change course. Overall, the Friends know what they want — Assad to stop the slaughter — but don’t have much idea how to get it.

The UN General Assembly, Syria, and China

While the slaughter grinds on in Syria, the world’s diplomats last week delivered speeches and voted on resolutions in the UN General Assembly. Although the Assembly has no enforcement power, it still serves as a stage for drama and an affirmation of the UN as a club of states. They all come — the dictators, democracies, rich and poor, large and small countries — to hold discourse as sovereign states.

The Syria resolution, backed by the Arab League and directed against the Assad regime, passed overwhelmingly. And it revealed the alignment of bigger powers with Syria developing as a proxy conflict between an Iran-Russia side and an Arab-Europe-America side. What the vote showed was a lopsided power balance with Russia and China isolated on the world stage.

Yes 137 ; Abstained 17 ; No 12

Look at the “no” coalition:

Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Belarus, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua

This is the mighty coalition that Russia put together to support its side against the American-led coalition. Let’s compare the relative power of the “yes” and “no” countries. How could we measure that power balance? Well, my International Relations textbook says, “The best single indicator of a state’s power may be its total GDP, which combines overall size, technological level, and wealth.” So how do the sides stack up?

The “yes” side represents a GDP total of about $67 trillion, which is 85% of the world total. The United States and Europe each contribute about a quarter of the “yes” total.

The total GDP on the “no” side is about $15 trillion. [The total is measured by “purchasing power parity” and would be even smaller by an alternative method.] China represents almost three-quarters of the total. Russia accounts for about 15 percent, and Iran about 6 percent. The rest are a bunch of smallish countries with leftist anti-American regimes. They are along for the ride. And the 17 abstaining countries from Algeria to Vietnam together make up less than 1 trillion dollars of GDP.

So by one crude measure we can quantify the power balance at 6-to-1 against the Russian-Chinese side.

Why did China join the losing side? Why did it vote against so many countries that China hopes to influence around the world? In particular, why did China side with Russia to veto the earlier Security Council resolution? In the past China used its veto sparingly, and generally only on issues of direct relevance to China’s core concerns (Taiwan).

In one sense voting no is a natural for China. Its leaders believe in the international system as an arrangement of sovereign states, and they like the UN as a club of states, especially since they have the veto. The Chinese leadership might reason, “If a government massacres its citizens in the streets that’s no business of foreign countries. Sometimes governments might have to do that. We did it ourselves in 1989 and China’s success since then is historical vindication that our policy in 1989 was correct.”

In another sense, China — like the tag-along “no” countries — is using Syria to express opposition to the United States. After all the USA just began a buildup in the Pacific evidently intended to count Chinese power in the region. China did not support the U.S. war against Iraq in 2003, and did not like NATO’s role in helping rebels carry out regime change in Libya last year. China is willing to take a hit to maintain a reputation for meaning what it says. So why not vote against the U.S. side in the UN and give a little brotherly love to the Russians? Let the Americans know they can’t walk all over the world overthrowing governments they don’t like. The trouble for China is that the lopsided vote seems to have strengthened the United States and isolated China.

China does have a potentially constructive role to play in Syria, as a diplomatic mediator that is fairly neutral in the proxy war. China really just wants one thing from the Middle East, like the rest of the world does — oil. It buys a lot from the Arabian side of the Gulf and a lot from the Persian side. And China does not care much whether or not protest and rebellion in Syria succeed, notwithstanding that a toppling of the Syrian regime could be another bad example that Chinese citizens might (but probably wouldn’t) be influenced by.

Two days ago China sent its vice foreign minister to Damascus for talks with the Syrian government. The Chinese diplomat reiterated: “China does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change.” But he said China would try to “play a positive role” in seeking a solution to the Syrian conflict. Let’s see if anything comes of that.

Syria Heading for Civil War?

That sound coming from Syria these days is the sound of diplomatic doors slamming shut as the country lurches toward all-out sectarian civil war. If you can hear it over the sound of government artillery shells blasting civilians in Homs…

One of these doors slammed a week ago when Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council resolution put forward by the Arab League, which called for Syria’s president Bashar al Assad to step aside in favor of a transitional government. Russia considers Assad a friend and customer, and therefore didn’t want to side with his enemies. China never likes the idea of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. The United States and other western powers pushed forward a resolution that Russia was sure to veto (an unwise course in my opinion), thereby giving up the potential to deliver a united message to Assad from the international community.

Assad responded by stepping up a lethal assault on neighborhoods of Homs that oppose his rule. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights today called it “an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force,” addressing the UN General Assembly where Saudi Arabia today took the case against Syria. Unfortunately nobody needs to slam the General Assembly door closed because that body has no power to do anything about the situation (as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon politely reminded the Saudis).

Yesterday the Arab League officially terminated its observer mission in Syria, another door closed. Instead it is now proposing a joint UN-Arab League observer mission in Syria. (Observers are unarmed peacekeepers, arguably the weakest form of peacekeeping force.) The proposal faces three big challenges: (1) Peacekeeping forces require the consent of the host government, which Syria says it will not grant; (2) They require authorization by the Security Council, where Russia may again use its veto; and (3) They generally can work only after a cease-fire is in place, lest they fall into a Bosnia-style dilemma of “keeping the peace where there’s no peace to keep.” So the peacekeeping door is probably firmly shut for the moment.

A cease-fire itself is no closer than ever. The opposition won’t negotiate with the regime, at least not while the killing continues. The regime does not want a cease-fire while it’s trying to use massive force to put down the opposition.

And so the violence escalates, as the government intensifies its crackdown and nonviolent protests slowly morph into an armed insurgency. Turkey and Saudi Arabia appear likely to support the opposition with arms and money, while Iran and Russia will do the same for the government.

During the Cold War, civil wars around the world were larger and longer because of the support pumped into each side by the opposing superpowers. These proxy wars faded away twenty years ago, and that is one important reason why levels of war violence have been lower around the world. But now, there is a new prospect of big powers fueling both sides in a proxy war in Syria. The fault line in Syria runs right down the Sunni-Shi’ite divide that pits Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on one side (backed by Russia) against Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and most of the Arab League on the other (backed by the United States). Right under that fault line sits the world’s most important pool of oil, the one resource without which the world economy cannot function.

What is to be done? Well, the last deal that had legitimacy all around was the Arab League agreement with Syria last December 19 that let the monitors in and called for pulling back Syrian forces from cities, starting negotiations with the opposition, and giving human rights workers and journalists access to Syria. At the time, opposition leaders said it was just a stalling tactic by Assad, which was probably true, but nonetheless this agreement — especially the demand to pull forces back from cities under assault today — is the basis for moving forward, because Assad already agreed with it and Russia therefore can’t really oppose it.

With some effort, the western powers could line up Russian and Chinese support to put the stamp of the UN Security Council on this demand to pull out of the cities — not the demand that Assad step down — and then push measures to induce Assad to comply. Opposition leaders should be pressured to join negotiations for a cease-fire (it’s in their interest as the party being blasted), and if one can be achieved then the international community should move quickly to insert a UN peacekeeping force (I’m not so sure a joint force with the Arab League is the best way to go, given its lack of neutrality).

It may be that such an approach would fail to stop the slide into a sectarian civil war. It may fail to stop Assad’s slaughter of civilians, and on the other hand if it does stop that slaughter the Assad regime may not be able to stay in power, and a new strategy will be needed to hold the country together under a transitional government. In other words, the outcome probably will not actually be a stable cease-fire with an international peacekeeping force. But this is still the step to try next order to move forward — the step that U.S. policymakers skipped past in bringing to the UNSC what amounted to a demand for Assad’s resignation. Arming the opposition would be a disaster. Waiting and hoping is not likely to improve things. Playing “make Russia look bad” does not help the Syrians.

It is very worrisome that the Syrian conflict could ignite actual war between countries, in an unstable region at a pivotal moment, and with all that oil on the line. To my way of thinking, the best way to prevent this is to line up the international community for united, forceful diplomatic action and focus directly on reducing the violence, not just on changing the regime.

U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, recently told Foreign Policy magazine that the conflict with Russia over Syria (and Iran) did not necessarily portend a return to the Cold War. She pointed to successful cooperation in the UNSC on Iran and North Korea sanctions, the independence of South Sudan, and the UN support of the Afghan and Iraqi governments. “There are going to be issues that are difficult. We’ve had our share of those of late and they … divide us and even get rancorous. But I don’t think is a fair characterization of the body of work that we’ve been doing over the last several years…” Point well taken — now let’s kick that U.S.-Russian cooperation into gear to steer Syria away from civil war.


Is the Security Council Neutered?

This weekend the UN Security Council voted on a Syria resolution, and my prediction of success in passing one was 100% wrong. Both Russia and China vetoed it. Then a frustrated Hillary Clinton went off and said the Security Council was “neutered,” which is rather provocative, gendered and dated  language for a usually level-headed diplomat. She suggested forming an international coalition outside the UN instead, not for military intervention but to support the Syrian opposition. Presumably this could include supporting the Free Syrian Army with arms and supplies?

By contrast, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seemed more sensible; he said: “This is a great disappointment to the people of Syria and the Middle East, and to all supporters of democracy and human rights. It undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community in this period when the Syrian authorities must hear a unified voice calling for an immediate end to its violence against the Syrian people.” As the drama unfolded in New York, violence in Syria escalated sharply. Government attacks sought to retake neighborhoods and towns controlled by the opposition. Hundreds more civilians were reported killed.

A lot is at stake here. We could go back and try again to work with Russia and China through the UN, or we could go to a coalition of the willing to help overthrow the Assad regime. It’s important to get it right. I have pretty much nothing good to say about the Syrian regime, but we should think carefully about Russia and China’s positions.

When the UN works, it can impede bad ideas that individual countries or groups of countries come up with. History looms large for the Syrian case, with both Iraq and Libya very much on Russian and Chinese minds. Nine years ago the United States came to the UN to demand action to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Then as now the secretary of state showed up in person, Colin Powell waving around a test tube of white powder that was supposed to represent Saddam’s terrifying weapons of mass destruction. The Security Council refused to approve action to overthrow the Iraqi government, the United States formed a coalition of the wiling and did it anyway, and it turned out to be an extremely costly, painful mistake.

In the UN, the great powers act as a form of checks and balances on each other. Just as in the U.S. government, this diffusion of power is frustrating in terms of getting anything done. But currently there is no better system. This is the same system, by the way, that lets the United States veto resolutions critical of Israel, yet I’ve never heard American officials say they were neutering the UNSC in doing so.

If one country uses a veto, it’s easy to dismiss it, but when Russia and China both say no to something, we need to pay attention to their reasons. Their fundamental reasoning here was that the international community should not violate the sovereignty of a UN member to overthrow its government, especially when several Middle East regimes have already been toppled in recent years by the United States and its allies. Russia and China also see hypocrisy in western accusations against Syria’s government, when no action was sought against a U.S. ally in Bahrain that violently repressed its own uprising last year.

Russia and China also complain about Libya. Last year, the western powers asked for authorization of a no-fly zone to protect civilians imminently threatened by the Gaddafi regime. The UNSC said yes, and the western powers then stretched that authority into support for rebel forces battling Gaddafi. They won, Libya was spared a prolonged civil war, and the intervention turned out to be a good idea. Russia and China now say they were burned by allowing a resolution that the West would stretch, and won’t repeat the mistake in Syria. But there’s more to it than that. Syria is not Libya, and they are less comfortable with an effort to oust the government there.

Why is Syria not Libya? First, the Libyan strongman was nobody’s friend, so nobody particularly cared about his fate. In Syria, Assad may be behaving badly but Russia would lose a friend (and possibly a naval base) if Assad were overthrown. Second, in Libya the rebels were already in all-out armed conflict with the government, with control of a substantial territory. There was no question of averting a civil war. In Syria, the country is moving quickly toward a civil war but still the Free Syrian Army cannot permanently hold territory and much of the opposition is not armed. Third, Libya was isolated from the regional politics of the Sunni-Shi’ite and Arab-Israeli conflicts. Syria is in the middle of both. When the Arab League acts against Syria, there is an element of Sunni countries rallying against a Shi’ite-affiliated regime that oppresses its Sunni majority. By contrast, the Arab League call for action in Libya last year did not have any such element.

And then Russia and China have to be influenced by their feelings about recent U.S. actions that have almost seemed to gratuitously “dis” these two great powers. U.S. officials continue to extend their influence in Eastern Europe, making former Soviet allies into NATO members (Clinton spoke while in Bulgaria); they base new missile defenses near Russia; they give publicity and moral support to Vladimir Putin’s domestic opponents; and they back “independent” Kosovo (not recognized by Russia) which was wrested from Russian ally Serbia by military force more than a decade ago.

On the Chinese side, U.S. officials talk up a “pivot” from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Pacific, where they describe plans to beef up military capabilities to confront a rising China; they also continue to sell arms to Taiwan despite their formal recognition of Taiwan as part of China; and they constantly attack China’s currency and trade policies as though U.S.-China trade were a zero-sum game.

These U.S. policies may each make sense — I’m not judging them substantively here — but you can see how from a Russian or Chinese perspective the cumulative effect seems hostile and aggressive. Then the United States asks China to help with North Korea and Russia with Iran, to control dangerous nuclear proliferation that probably poses a greater threat to American security than any of the above issues. It doesn’t make sense.

So now the United States and its friends put a resolution on the table calling for Assad to leave power and the formation of a transitional government. After watering it down by eliminating economic sanctions and explicit calls for Assad to leave, the resolution still supported the Arab League plan, which calls for Assad’s departure. Russia and China still opposed it. At that point, the western powers had a choice — water it down further until Russia and China came on board, or push to a vote and make Russia and China veto it. They chose the latter. As the New York Times reported, “The resolution’s Western and Arab sponsors said they had compromised enough, and pushed the measure to a vote, virtually daring Russia to exercise its veto and risk international condemnation.” So that’s great, we can condem Russia. But Syrians might have been better served by a resolution that could pass, one that condemed the Syrian government’s violence and demanded that the Assad regime stop.

I wish China had not vetoed this resolution, but I can see some arguments on their side to take seriously. Looking forward, China wants to see negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition. The opposition currently says it will not negotiate while the killing goes on, but I hope they change their mind about that. The armed opposition in Syria has little chance of prevailing in a civil war, barring the kind of direct military help from the West that just isn’t going to happen. Another bit of history hanging over the scene is the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S. officials encouraged an uprising by Iraqi Shi’ites that was repressed with extreme violence while we stood by.

In Syria today, the worst U.S. policy would be one that encourages the opposition to use armed struggle but fails to back them up with effective military force, alienates the Russians and Chinese (whose help we need elsewhere), weakens the UN, and does not induce Assad to reduce or end his killing spree. Yet that seems to be the policy path we are on at the moment. Outrage at Assad’s mass killing is justified; now what can we do effectively to address it? Take a deep breath before answering that. Let’s get it right.

Syria and the International Community

The international community is not, as sometimes claimed, an oxymoron. It works surprisingly well and is improving through time. This week the international community faces a new challenge and opportunity, as the Syria problem lands squarely in the UN Security Council (UNSC), where I believe the world’s conflicts should be addressed.

For most of a year the situation has escalated both on the ground and in the international response. Syria’s violent suppression of nonviolent protests has led to armed resistance by some regime opponents and threatens to escalate into sectarian civil war. More than 5,000 have died. My predictions of a protracted stalemate are proving depressingly correct.  But the international response has not been static.

At first, bilateral relations played the major role. Individual countries such as Turkey tried to intervene diplomatically to convince the Assad regime to change course and stop the violence. This did not succeed, and Turkey among others turned against Assad. (Indeed, Syria’s only important reliable friends these days are Iran and Russia.)

Next the regional organization came into play. The Arab League developed a peace plan that required the Syrian government to pull back its forces from cities (some of which would then be de facto opposition territory). Syria resisted implementing this plan, and the Arab League sent in monitors to poke around in Syria and report whether progress was occurring. It wasn’t. First the Gulf states withdrew from the monitoring mission, and then the Arab League as a whole suspended it, called for Assad to hand over power to a transitional government, and asked for action by the UN Security Council.

That’s how the matter came to be discussed this week in the UN. And there they all were — the five permanent members, this year’s ten nonpermanent members, the ambassadors of Syria and of the Arab League. To underscore its importance, the USA sent secretary of state Hillary Clinton to sit in the U.S. seat, and European countries sent foreign ministers. It is a “world order moment.” (Syria, however, used the occasion mostly to attack the Arab League and particularly Qatar, which participated in the air campaign in Libya and has led efforts to remove Assad from power in Syria.) The discussions began Tuesday, continued today behind closed doors, and are expected to culminate in a vote on Friday or Monday. Here’s is a great video summary of the situation as of Tuesday, from al Jazeera:

In these UNSC discussions, the USA and Britain have called for Assad’s ouster and the imposition of economic sanctions on Syria if the violence continues. The United States declares that it is not looking for another Libya-type resolution, which authorized force to protect civilians but was stretched to include fairly direct assistance to rebels who overthrew the government. Russia and China were upset by the stretching of the Libya resolution, and want language in any new resolution that rules out military intervention.

Russia declares that trying to change Syria’s regime by force or even by sanctions could trigger a bigger regional war, presumably along the Sunni-Shi’ite divide between Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s allies. More fundamentally, both Russia and China have violently suppressed domestic unrest in the past, and they want the international community to uphold a strong norm of sovereignty, based in the UN Charter, that essentially says any country can do what it wants within its own borders. That old norm is being challenged of late by a new norm of sovereignty, the Responsibility to Protect, that says the international community may violate sovereign as a last resort if necessary to save civilians from mass atrocity events. The intervention in Libya was a successful application of that principle, halting an imminent massive slaughter in Benghazi, notwithstanding Russia and China’s grumbling about the later uses of air power to help the rebels overthrow Gaddafi.

Syria is no Libya, however. Russia has promised to veto any resolution that does not rule out military intervention, and this means any military intervention would have to occur without a mandate from the UN Security Council. That idea is tempting to some, and Anne-Marie Slaughter believes that the situation in Syria could become so dire as to warrant a Kosovo-style intervention, i.e. without UN authorization.

If you had a request from the Arab League backed by the protesters themselves and you had a – perhaps a super majority on the Security Council, meaning nine, 10, 11 out of the 15 vote to support, then I would be willing to countenance action even in the face of a veto as we did in Kosovo. When it comes down to this kind of humanitarian intervention, I think the rules surrounding the veto are more complicated, and there are precedents as in Kosovo for acting even in the face of a veto.

But this kind of coalition-of-the-willing action is becoming less attractive in recent years, and it seems unlikely that the west would use force against the Syrian regime without the unique legitimacy afforded by the UNSC.

My prediction (why not?) is that the international community will succeed in passing a UN resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s violence and telling Syria to halt it. Possibly it will even endorse the Arab League plan, which among other things calls on Assad to step down. It will not impose sanctions, or perhaps just weak symbolic ones, and it will make clear that the resolution does not authorize outside military force.

Daniel Serwer notes Russia’s interest in vetoing a resolution if only to look strong with an upcoming presidential election. But President Obama has his own election year and would in no way use military force against Syria, so there is not really any conflict about a Libya-style use of the UN to legitimize a western air campaign.

The western powers have every reason to want a resolution to pass, not be vetoed, and therefore they will be limited by what Russia will allow (abstaining but not vetoing). They will press for a few days to see how far they can get, and then take the deal. And that’s a good thing because it means the international community is functioning as it’s supposed to. Not good for Syrian civilians, perhaps, but good for world order. The region is unsettled and the Arab world split, so it is important for the international community to speak with one voice, and that voice is the UN Security Council.