Friday, 7 October 2011

7 October 2011

I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that you are deeply concerned about what’s happening in Syria.

I’m also going to assume, for the sake of the same argument, that when you mull over the options for international action to put pressure on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, you would much rather that such action was sanctioned by an appropriately worded UN security council resolution.

In other words, you thought – by and large – that the NATO-led military intervention in Libya was more acceptable than the US-led invasion of Iraq.

So here’s my question: now that Russia and China have cast their vetoes to block a Security Council resolution on Syria – a resolution that had been much watered down in the hope of winning their acquiescence, if not their approval – what would you do?

Your choices are these: do nothing, on the grounds that you tried and failed; try again, with a different form of wording in an attempt to win over the Russians and Chinese; or say to hell with the UN, we’ll go it alone, put together as broad a coalition as we can, and do what needs to be done to bring an end to the ghastly mess that Syria is becoming.

There is little doubt that the crisis is worsening. According to the UN, the death toll since the start of the anti-government uprising in March is now close to 3,000 – and many thousands more are believed to be in jail.

There are also growing indications that at least some of the anti-government protesters are now armed – in the cities of Hama and Homs there are now daily reports of clashes between security forces and armed opponents. From here to civil war is a short and slippery slope.

Why did the Russians and Chinese cast their vetoes? China did because Russia did – and because Chinese leaders are deeply suspicious of any foreign interference in what it regards as a country’s domestic affairs. (If I say Tibet, you’ll understand why.)

And Russia, according to the pro-government MP Sergei Markov whom I interviewed on Wednesday, won’t endorse any UN resolution that might be seen as a step along a path which leads to a Libya-style intervention.

Remember, Moscow abstained in the vote on Security Council resolution 1973, which authorised the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas in Libya, short of foreign troops on the ground.

It’s been regretting that abstention ever since. What’s more, now that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he expects soon to resume his former duties as President Vladimir Putin, there are already some signs that Moscow’s foreign policy stance is beginning to harden, perhaps in anticipation of his return to the presidency.

The European Union and the United States have already imposed a long list of sanctions on Syria – and its powerful neighbour Turkey is talking of doing likewise.

But if President Assad was worried that he might face the full wrath of a toughly-worded Security Council resolution, he can rest easy: the threat has passed.

And those governments – in Washington, London and Paris – who worry about the threat to regional stability if Syria spirals into all-out civil war are left with a dilemma: how can they exert real pressure, and remain on the right side of international law, without the agreement of Russia and China? (By the way, South Africa, India, Brazil and Lebanon all abstained on the Syria resolution this week, so there’s evidently still a lot of persuading to be done.)

Incidentally, a key factor in the Libya intervention was a request from the Arab League for a UN-approved no-fly zone. And there’s no sign – at least so far – of any similar request being made regarding Syria.

In other words, stand by for many more weeks of diplomacy and arm-twisting before the UN tries again to come up with an acceptable formula for action.

Oh, and by the way, changing the subject entirely, if you enjoy radio drama, you may like to make a point of listening to Radio 4’s Afternoon Play on Monday at 2.15pm. It’s called “A Time to Dance” and one of the characters in it … no, I really shouldn’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say you might recognise the voice.

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