Why the United States' role in this conflict should remain strictly humanitarian.
The United Nations Security Council held another inconclusive Middle East debate on March 12th, focusing largely on the continuing massacres in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated, along with her counterparts from Russia, France, the United Kingdom and other members of the Security Council.
Clinton called on Russia and China to support a Security Council resolution that placed the blame for the violence squarely on the shoulders of the Assad regime. She insisted that, as between the government and the opposition, Syrian President Assad's forces must stop the firing first. Elaborating on a central theme of her Security Council speech, she told reporters afterwards:
The monopoly on deadly violence belongs to the Syrian regime, and there needs to be an end to the violence and the bloodshed in order to move into a political process. Now, of course, once the Syrian Government has acted, then we would expect others as well to cease the violence. But there cannot be an expectation for defenseless citizens in the face of artillery assaults to end their capacity to defend themselves before there’s a commitment by the Assad regime to do so... There must be a cessation of violence by the Syrian regime first and foremost. Then we can move toward asking others, who will no longer need to defend themselves because we will be in a political process, to end their own counter-violence.
French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Alain Juppé, agreed, telling reporters that one of his "red lines" in negotiating a new resolution was to make sure that the initiative for a cease fire must first come from the Assad regime. His other "red line" was that the resolution must include a clear reference to a political process that takes account of "the aspirations of the Syrian people to freedom and to democracy."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov agreed that there must be "an immediate end of violence" in Syria. However, he added that armed elements of the opposition in Syria - including elements said to be affiliated with al Qaeda - were also responsible for the violence and should cease their armed attacks in conjunction with the Assad regime. He supported a resolution by the Security Council, but one that did not impose "any prejudged solutions."
Both Russia and China referred back to the Security Council resolution authorizing international military action in Libya to protect civilians, which they felt was exceeded by NATO in terms of the scope of the NATO bombings and the arming of some rebels in Libya. They had both abstained on the Libyan resolution, and vowed not to permit a repeat situation in Syria.
French Minister Juppé minced no words in criticizing Russia and China for their comparisons with the Libyan situation:
It is rather indecent to try to condemn this intervention and at the same time to block, to veto a resolution in Syria just at the moment when the regime is killing hundreds and hundreds of victims.
The back-and-forth at the UN took place against the backdrop of more killings in the city of Homs as well as in other parts of Syria. The United Nations estimates that 7,500 people have died so far in Syria, since the crackdown on protests began about a year ago. Valerie Amos, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator for Syria, expressed horror at the devastation she witnessed first-hand. "As fighting, shelling, and other violence intensifies in Idlib, Homs and other places in Syria, the risk of a grave humanitarian crisis grows," she said. "I call on all Member States to continue to ensure that the humanitarian response and negotiations for humanitarian access are clearly separated from political discussions."
An attempt by the UN-Arab League Special Envoy, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to persuade Assad to initiate an immediate ceasefire failed. Nevertheless, Annan - who once called Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein "a man he could do business with" - remains optimistic.
Negotiations are underway behind the scenes for some sort of watered down Security Council resolution, which could end up finessing the timing of cessation of violence by each side, provide general support for the Arab League's plan for transition towards a more inclusive government chosen by the Syrian people without specifically asking for Assad to step aside, and call for unrestricted access for international humanitarian workers to reach those in need of assistance. For any such resolution to pass, there will have to be a disavowal of any outside military intervention and no reference to the imposition of economic sanctions under UN auspices.
A resolution along these lines could have been passed five weeks ago if the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom had been willing to accept Russia's trivial amendments to the resolution offered at that time. They refused, leading to the vetoes by Russia and China that Secretary of State Clinton and French Foreign Minister Juppé in particular have so strongly condemned.
If the U.S., France and the United Kingdom continue to insist on explicitly setting forth in the resolution the order in which the violence must stop, much less calling explicitly for Assad to step aside, the only possible resolution at all would be one focused on relieving the immediate humanitarian crisis and generally supporting Kofi Annan's continued efforts at mediating a ceasefire.
When I asked William Hague MP, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, whether getting something on the record indicating the Security Council's condemnation of what is currently occurring in Syria would be better than nothing at all, he responded with characteristic diplomatese:
These of course are the issues we are all considering and tackling now. I think it was very clear over the last few months, that the best plan on the table, the plan on the table, was that of the Arab League and they put forward a very good plan for the political process in Syria. That was one that we’ve been happy to support and continue to support. As you know, we’ve had a difference of view with Russia about that, and that was the real basis of the disagreement on the last Resolution, but we are considering all these issues in negotiations and will continue to do so.
While the UN Security Council has yet to pass even the mildest of resolutions regarding the violence in Syria, at the other end of the spectrum a major Syrian opposition exile group has increased its calls for international military action and arming of the rebels. Senator John McCain is pressing for the imposition of a no-fly zone. The Obama administration has wisely resisted these calls so far. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of the risks and complexities of military intervention, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria earlier this month.
The Obama administration should continue to stay out of this fight, even if, as was the case with Libya, the French, British and Arab League urge armed intervention. Our role should remain strictly humanitarian and diplomatic in nature.
The conventional wisdom is that Iran will be the big loser if Assad is overthrown. That may or may not be true, depending on who takes over. In the meantime, Iran's full-blown support for the Assad regime is diverting valuable Iranian resources, such as some of its elite Revolutionary Guard forces. Iran is also demonstrating to its Arab neighbors that it is on the wrong of the "Arab Spring" freedom movement, causing a potentially serious rupture with its Hamas allies.
If and when Assad does eventually fall despite all of Iran's backing, the humiliation that Iran may well suffer in squandered influence will be all the more satisfying. If Assad remains in power for the foreseeable future, Iran will continue to be diverted and will be further isolated, along with its client state, Syria, from the rest of the region. In the meantime, we must not lose sight of the far graver global security threat posed by Iran's nuclear arms development program.
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