Syria Might Be Next: Follow-up

By Matthew M. Reed

My last post on Libya and Syria resulted in some great comments. No doubt it deserves a follow-up. What I’ll do for brevity’s sake is paraphrase comments and respond to each.

Russia and China will veto any UN resolution. This is true today. But it would be wrong to assume their stance will remain absolute. Russia and China abstained from Resolution 1973, which allowed for intervention in Libya. They could not resist the overwhelming consensus that crystallized in March, when the GCC, Arab League, United States, and European Union decided a no-fly zone was necessary. What I wrote back in July is worth considering again, since it echoes the reservations of some readers:

The bombing campaign began in order to prevent the siege of Benghazi from becoming a massacre. It was successful in this regard. As it stands now, however, NATO is pressing for regime change–a very different mission. I don’t have trouble with this change of strategy–in fact, NATO should have pursued regime change from the beginning. But the Russian and Chinese response to that policy change should worry American decision-makers.

The problem with changing the terms of engagement without changing the terms of the mandate is simple: future mandates may be harder to come by. Russia and China abstained from UN Resolution 1973. They could have vetoed it. They didn’t, however, for fear that a firm stance would reflect poorly on them, and their abstention granted NATO the grounds to protect Libyan civilians. If this expansive interpretation of a UN Resolution is perceived to be the new normal, it’s hard to imagine two of the five members of the UN Security Council gambling on abstentions again. Resolution 1973 does authorize “all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas,” but the language was agreed upon when Benghazi was under siege, not Tripoli.

On June 19, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed as much when interviewed by the Financial Times. Medvedev was spectacularly blunt when asked if Russia would support a similar resolution against Syria: “what I am not ready to support is a dead-ringer for Resolution 1973 on Libya,” he said, “because I am firmly convinced that a good resolution was turned into a scrap of paper to cover up a pointless military operation.” Medvedev’s comments are striking, surely, but they were made two months ago—well before the regime in Damascus ratcheted up their vicious crackdown during Ramadan.

But on August 5, Medvedev made clear that Moscow’s patience is limited. “Assad needs to urgently launch reforms, make peace with the opposition, restore civil order and create a modern state. If he cannot do that, a sad fate awaits him,” Medvedev stated. “And we will also be forced to ultimately take some decisions on Syria.” China has commented less on the matter but there’s little reason to believe Moscow and Beijing are immune to international outrage. Both know Assad’s brutality can only be defended for so long before it reflects poorly on them as superpower pretenders. Moments ago, Russia pushed back against a new sanctions targeting Syria–a country with which it trades arms. And yesterday, China’s Foreign Ministry website posted a statement which stated, “Syria’s future should be decided by Syria itself.” Russian resistance and Chinese vagueness are tough but surmountable obstacles, I think.

Calculations might change too once Assad’s grip becomes truly precarious. Hesitancy shown by Russia and China has led to speculation that they will be boxed out of Libya economically, and that foreign companies based in countries that intervened will be favored in the post-Qaddafi era. Aram Shegunts, director general of the Russia-Libya Business Council told Reuters just yesterday that “We have lost Libya completely.” For the Washington and Brussels, intervention was a matter of principle; foreign powers wanted to be on the “right side of history.” For China and Russia, losing access to more markets—even one as modest as Syria—may not be worth it. Politically and economically, defending Assad makes less sense if trends in Damascus appear irreversible.

Turkey will not endorse intervention in Syria. To me, this makes more sense than assuming Russian and Chinese intransigence. Turkey has more to lose in Syria given their investments and proximity. But, at the same time, Turkey’s reputation is at stake. A meek response to Assad’s cruelty will hurt the country’s prestige, since its heavyweight status hinges on moral superiority in a region still defined by authoritarianism. Coddling Syria is out of the question. Turkey’s democratic politics won’t allow it. Recent comments by Turkish leaders reveal they, like the Russians, are gravely worried about developments next door. So again, Turkey is not willing to approve intervention today—that much is true—but there must be a magic number of dead Syrian civilians that agitate it enough to act or permit action by others. Silence is not an option. But words are not enough.

Europe has its own problems and Syria is not one of them. Same goes for the US. No doubt domestic politics will affect the debate. But this is where cost-benefit analysis comes into play. As I said in my first post, the bill for the Libyan intervention appears tiny compared to other adventures. Remember too that the rewards could be that much greater. If Assad’s “killing machine,” to borrow the phrase used by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, continues apace, condemnations will cascade even though they will have little effect. The Libyan example suggests the US and Europe can absorb the minimal costs of another intervention.

But NATO officials have already dismissed the “Libyan solution.” They say it’s not a template for future interventions. True. The Wall Street Journal noted this morning that “The [Libya] campaign underscored the increasing defense vulnerabilities of cash-strapped European governments, which have been cutting military budgets. While the U.S. withdrew from offensive operations early in the campaign, NATO was dependent on America for so-called key enablers, such as air-to-air refueling and airborne intelligence gathering. Over a quarter of NATO’s sorties to date have been carried out by the U.S.” These issues, combined with the uncertainty of future UN resolutions, make the Libyan intervention hard to replicate, according to those interviewed by WSJ. But the biggest obstacle may not be available firepower or willpower—it may be the peaceful bent of Syrian demonstrators.

NATO and intervening parties would need a mandate from the people before they could intervene. Anthony Shadid of the New York Times gives some good perspective: “Syrian activists were quick to caution against parallels. Unlike Libya, they hold no cities; few if any are calling for Western intervention; and the military and security forces engaged in a brutal crackdown against them show little sign of fracture.” Syria’s demonstrators remain just that—demonstrators. For the most part they peacefully resist in the hopes that their victimization will sap any legitimacy from the Assad government and hollow out its support. Libya’s uprising, however, crossed a threshold of violence and became an open rebellion or civil war, which NATO then chose a side in. The regime still has too many supporters it seems.

I obviously haven’t addressed all these questions thoroughly enough. In fact, I’ve raised more than I started with. But I want to thank everyone for your comments here, by e-mail, on Facebook, and in person. We’re thrilled to see people reading Al Ajnabee. Please spread the word and join the debate.

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