The Syrian Dilemma
February 5, 2012

Maria Tomchick

As I write this, news outlets are reporting that the UN Security Council has failed to pass a resolution supporting a peace plan for Syria. Russia and China, vetoed it, and are now being targeted by the US media and conservative US politicians for the usual drubbing. But to reach a solution to end the violence in Syria, we need to understand why Russia and China vetoed the resolution and evaluate if the UN Security Council is the right place to work out a solution to the Syrian crisis.

The plan, drafted by the Arab League, would involve the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Under the plan, he and his extensive family would go into exile and the Syrian government would be turned over to a deputy appointed by Assad until new elections could be held. The plan is modeled after one that has seen the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh retire to the United States for medical treatment while Yemen remains in the hands of his confederates. Unfortunately, this plan hasn’t ended violence in Yemen; it hasn’t even ended the peaceful street protests in the capital Sana’a. The Yemeni opposition view it as a half-measure, and weak one at that. The Syrian opposition has the same opinion of the Arab League proposal for Syria.

Syria is a nation made up of many different sectarian groups: the majority is Sunni Muslim, but there are significant minorities of Druze, Christians, Jews, and Kurds, and the country is currently controlled by a Shiite Muslim minority sect of which Assad and his family are members. In the regional political arena, other Arab nations view the Syrian government as a strong ally of Shiite Iran and, through them, an influence on the government in Iraq, which is increasingly moving toward a sectarian Shiite, authoritarian state. In other words, Iraq is becoming more like Syria, in spite of US efforts to maintain a multi-sectarian democracy in Iraq.

The other dominant nations in the region are Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a conservative Sunni Muslim monarchy, and the Jewish state of Israel. Saudi Arabia dominates the Arab League, and the Sunni opposition in Syria initially welcomed Arab League representatives, only to have their hopes dashed when the League proved impotent in ending the violence by Assad’s government. Then the leader of the Arab League delegation announced that the Syrian government wasn’t doing anything wrong. It turned out that his credentials were deeply suspect: General Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi is the head of Sudan’s military intelligence, who set up the janjaweed militias that have terrorized Darfur.

Yet the Arab League plan, much reviled by both the Syrian opposition and the Assad government, was embraced by the UN Security Council. Here was a politically correct solution, drafted by Syria’s neighbors. It was an Arab solution for an Arab crisis that didn’t require either the commitment of military might or the expenditure of political capital by the French, German and British governments (who are currently absorbed in a European financial crisis), and a government in the United States which wants an easy success to wave in front of voters in an election year.

Yet China and Russia see a disturbing trend in the Middle East. Both are opposed to a Libyan solution in Syria. They view an aerial bombing campaign and the arming of the Syrian opposition as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and the seed for civil war. While the cameras of the US media have turned away from Libya, that country’s new government is hanging by a thread, barely in control of even its capital city. The Libyan government has twice asked armed tribal groups to withdraw from the capital city, and both times been ignored. Most of the Libyan countryside remains outside of the federal government’s control. Syria is already headed in the same direction. A western military intervention would only hasten this course.

Syria is an important trading partner for Russia. Civil war would destroy the infrastructure and commercial relationships that make that trade possible. So Russia, you would think, should support the Arab League proposal. But this ignores the reality in Yemen, which is in the midst of its own civil war that has not lessened with Saleh’s departure. More importantly, both Russia and China are deeply disturbed by the Arab Spring. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s ruling party has been the target of growing street demonstrations influenced by the Arab Spring movement. And China has, for decades, tried to suppress a dissident democratic movement that has grown bolder each year with encroaching capitalism and social media, not to mention numerous uprisings by ethnic minority populations in its far-flung empire. Both nations are deeply concerned with sovereignty issues and the rights of ruling governments to maintain order in their own territories.

Hence, any UN Security Council resolution was doomed to failure from the start. If the West truly cares about Syria, the only peaceful solution will involve direct talks with the Assad government and opposition groups to end the fighting and create an interim coalition government. Both the Syrian military and the armed opposition must stand down, and they must be compelled to. This can be accomplished by diplomatic and economic means, as long as Russia can be shown that Syria itself must be saved, and that Assad and his government can be peacefully supplanted. Once Russia has a stake in the solution, its pressure will be critical in obtaining Assad’s resignation. But first the US, Europe, and Russia have to set aside domestic concerns and take the time to hammer out an agreement.

Otherwise Syria will become another Libya or Yemen. And all three nations will eventually slide into chaotic states similar to Afghanistan in the 1990’s or Somalia today. That would be a terrible legacy of the Arab Spring. The western, “old” democracies have a responsibility to nurture the peaceful transition to democracy in Middle East nations and, so far, we’ve been failing at this historic task.