Anti-government protests in Syria began in March 2011, spiralled out of control of the authorities and erupted into a challenge, mainly in Sunni-dominated areas, to 40 years of leadership by the Alawite Assad family. The government revoked the emergency, promised political dialogue and constitutional reform with multi-party elections, offered amnesties and released thousands of detainees, but the opposition rejects any compromise. The opposition is composed of the exile-led Syrian National Council dominated by Sunnis and the Muslim Brothers, the National Coordination Committee within Syria, which is wary of Islamists, the United Kingdom-based Observatory for Human Rights, and army deserters comprising the Free Syrian Army based in Turkey. Syria has 21 million people and a Sunni majority, but with a 20 per cent Alawite and Christian minority that supports President Bashar al-Assad’s secularism. In November 2011, the Arab League, prompted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, suspended Syria, imposed economic sanctions and organized an observer mission, later withdrawn. In January, the League called on Assad to cede power to a deputy, hold a dialogue with the opposition and elections under a government of national unity. But the government blames armed gangs and terrorists for the violence that its army attempts to crush, incurring 2000 casualties in the process. Each side blames the other for excesses and atrocities.
The United Nations stopped estimating the casualties after the number reached 5000, and has struggled to come to grips with this crisis, because the security council has been split from the outset. The first attempt to move a resolution at the UNSC was last October, after the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, but a draft was vetoed by China and Russia with India, South Africa, Brazil and Lebanon abstaining. The Bric stood together and Indian journalists reported that never had India been so popular in Syria, a country that has caused India no harm throughout its history.
With horrific images and emotional statements from the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council filling television screens, the UNSC’s second attempt came recently, evoking strong language. Hillary Clinton called the vote a “travesty” and William Hague a “betrayal”, while Russia’s Sergei Lavrov described the West’s reaction as “indecent” and “hysterical”. The draft resolution noted the League’s efforts but did not endorse Assad stepping down, and denied it was the intention to intervene under the mandatory clauses of the UN charter. But it did call for dialogue under the League’s auspices, demanded access and investigation by League monitors, and cooperation with the UN office for human rights and the Human Rights Council, all of which had previously condemned the Assad government. Therefore the resolution was supportive of the opposition and not even-handed. Predictably, there was another double veto from China and Russia, while the other members, including India and South Africa, voted in favour. Brazil had left the council, and the Bric solidarity had broken. Another Indian abstention would have been lauded by our media as reflecting India’s traditional approach, but the affirmative vote was received in surprised silence. Because voting at the UN is rarely based solely on the merits of a situation, the underlying objectives need examination.
The overall context is that both Beijing and Moscow feel under pressure from the US; China fears increased American military presence in Southeast Asia and Russia a US missile-defence system in Eastern Europe. Although it stalled UN action against allies like Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan, China has never vetoed any resolution on its own, but always in the company of Russia. This is why the West’s ire has been directed exclusively at Moscow. Beijing media suggested that the draft sought regime change that did not reflect the heart-rending state of affairs in that country, and could send a message to Assad’s armed opponents that they had international support. It cited the Libyan precedent, where Gaddafi’s overthrow had not brought stability to Libyans, but had pushed that country towards civil war.
Russia derives prestige and foreign influence through maintaining a distinction between internal and international affairs, and rejects any proactive norm-enforcing UNSC resolutions. It remembers the “constructive interpretation” of resolutions by the West over Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Iraq and Libya that led to interventions of highly doubtful legality. It had abstained on Libya in March 2011, and was determined not to repeat that error. Russia is cautious about the outcomes of the Arab Spring and unhappy at the rise of Islamists and Salafists in Tunisia and Egypt. It has its last remaining Mediterranean naval base in Tartus, and is the main supplier to Syria of military material. It assesses that Assad cannot be toppled from within. Striving for a central position, the foreign minister, Lavrov, said, “We are not a friend, we are not an ally of President Assad. We never said President Assad remaining in power is the solution to the crisis…. I do not think Russian policy is about asking people to step down. Regime change is not our profession. It is up to the Syrians themselves to decide how to run the country, how to introduce reforms, what kind of reforms, without any outside interference.” This stand has enabled Russia to be the only country working to find a solution on the ground, and one million Syrians are said to have turned out to welcome Lavrov on arrival recently. Moscow would want whatever new Syria emerges to maintain close ties with Russia, but may find that its attempts to manage developments are as fruitless as those of the West and the Arab League.
The West seeks regime change in an unfriendly country. It will not allow Moscow to drive the process because it is determined that Assad must go. It will frustrate any Russian plan to bring the parties to a dialogue. Its objective is to separate Syria from Iran, the latter being the main enemy with Syria as its major ally. Deposing Assad would lead, in this thinking, to the bonus of weakening the Hezbollah and Hamas as well. The UNSC resolution having been aborted, there will be a tremendous increment in clandestine and special forces’ operations, especially through Turkey, in support of the insurgents. Turkey is pro-West and its Arab policy was a dismal failure when it tried to influence events in the Arab Spring. It was left an outsider, like Iran, and wants to recover lost ground. The Gulf sheikhs fear a ‘Shia belt’ from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, and have repeatedly urged US action against Shias in Iraq, Iran and now Syria. They will countenance strikes even by Israel to achieve this.
Of course, there are double standards galore. The US has used the veto 50 times since 1945 to protect Israel and deny the Palestinians their rights, turning a blind eye to Israeli massacres in the occupied territories. There was no call for UN action in Yemen or Bahrain, where large numbers of people were killed, because Yemen is an ally in the ‘war on terror’ and Bahrain is home to a major US military base. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, asserts that “France will not abandon the Syrian people”: bitter irony from the former mandatory power in Syria. The co-sponsors of the UNSC draft included Morocco, Colombia, Togo, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, whose record of democracy, inclusive politics and tolerance of criticism cannot bear any scrutiny.
As for Israel, it remains silent, content to be out of the limelight for a change. It will not gain from Assad’s fall; there will be instability and Islamists might triumph. In general terms, the Arab Spring has been to Israel’s disadvantage, but any weakening of Iran suits its agenda.
In Syria itself, Damascus and Aleppo and the principal units of the army are with Assad. So are Iran and Iraq and Shia Lebanon. Public support is also solid, but hard to quantify. All states, including the permanent members of the UNSC, have used excessive force against their own citizens at times, and given the reports that foreign elements within Syria are acting as ‘advisers’ to the armed opposition which is financed from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Assad can hardly do otherwise than respond with force. He has made many conciliatory offers; the opposition has made none. But even if Assad survives, it is hard to envisage the kind of future Syria he will preside over. The alternative is equally bleak; the opposition is a mixed bag of terrorists, Muslim Brothers, army deserters, secular activists and Sunnis, but Islamists are most likely to emerge on top as they have in Tunisia and Egypt. It will be fertile soil for al-Qaida.
The Indian ‘explanation of vote’, which is a facility given to every UNSC member, was opaque about India’s real intentions. Perhaps New Delhi assesses that Assad’s fall is imminent and there was need to curry favour with the opposition. Possibly India, knowing the resolution was going to be defeated, considered it had little to lose by a ‘yes’ vote and much to gain from the US — our current obsession with permanent membership — and the oil-producing Arab states. Conspiracy theorists might bring in the Sunni vote in the Uttar Pradesh elections, though this stretches the imagination.
Cicero suggested that one test be applied before any action: Cui bono? Who benefits? In the case of the UN tractations on Syria, the answer is obvious — nobody.