Western diplomats rally for action outside of the U.N., but a U.S. ally is not waiting in the wings.
Russia and China predictably vetoed the proposed United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing sanctions against the Syrian regime, which was submitted for a vote on July 19th by the United Kingdom.
The rejected resolution would have placed Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. If it had passed, the Security Council would have been able to authorize a range of diplomatic and economic sanctions (but no military action) against the Syrian government should it continue to fail to comply with all elements of the plan and Syria's prior commitments, including to stop using heavy weapons and to withdraw its troops from major population centers.
The final vote was 11 in favor, 2 against and 2 abstentions (Pakistan and South Africa). But the two vetoes killed the resolution. It was the third time Russia and China have used their veto power to block Security Council resolutions on Syria.
Just as predictable as the vetoes themselves was the schoolyard denunciations and finger-pointing that followed the vote.
"The first 2 vetoes by Russia and China were very destructive," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told the Security Council after the vote. "This veto is even more dangerous and deplorable."
Rice proceeded to label as "paranoid, if not disingenuous" Russia's claims that the resolution would have paved the way for foreign military intervention. She called on Russia and China to stop protecting Assad "before too many thousands more die."
Rice concluded her remarks to the Security Council by saying that it had "failed utterly in its most important task on its agenda this year," and she complained of yet "another dark day in Turtle Bay."
Continuing the same refrain while answering questions from the press, Rice said that "I think history will judge those that three times have blocked Council action quite harshly."
Needless to say, the Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin saw things very differently. He called the proposed resolution "biased" for threatening sanctions against only one side in the conflict and containing no means to prevent arms shipments to the opposition. Rice had said that the opposition would be covered, but did not elaborate how this would be accomplished.
Ambassador Churkin labeled the proposed resolution an "open path" to outside military intervention. He accused the West of "fanning the flames of confrontation" in the Security Council and standing by while the armed opposition committed terrorist acts such as the bombing in Damascus that claimed the lives of three high-level Assad loyalists. He mocked the "pious rhetoric" of those pressing for Assad's downfall, declaring that it's all about the West's desire to remove Iran's key ally in the Arab world. "A major geopolitical battle is being fought in the fields of Syria," Churkin said.
The deadlocked Security Council was like an episode of "Back to the Future" when Cold War geopolitics regularly paralyzed the UN body. All it could do in this case, a day after the Chapter VII resolution was vetoed, was to extend for a final thirty-day period the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), which consists of some 300 unarmed UN observers in Syria. Its purpose was to monitor the situation on the ground and compliance with the stillborn Kofi Annan peace plan, but it had recently suspended its regular patrols due to the escalating violence in the country and was mainly confined to its hotel facilities. The head of the mission, General Robert Mood, has resigned. All UNSMIS can really do during the next thirty days is to arrange for an orderly withdrawal.
Whether Syrian President Assad can survive will depend on a number of factors, none of which will have much of anything to do with the UN. If rebel forces continue to penetrate his inner circle with more devastating attacks like the bombing last week in Damascus, defections will rise. If the defections hit a critical mass, Assad's future will be in serious jeopardy.
Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House in London, was quoted in the Guardian that the assassinations in Damascus would have a major impact. "People will be deciding whether to defect or not," he said, "and the Russians will be wondering if they have backed the wrong horse."
Assad may end up following his wife, who is said to have already left the country and gone to Russia. Another possibility is a divided Syria in which Assad and his Alawite supporters would control coastal territory, enabling Russia to maintain its port. But in the short run at least, all indications are that Assad intends to fight on with heavy weapons and possibly even his stockpiled chemical weapons.
Recognizing that diplomacy at the United Nations had reached a dead end, Ambassador Rice alluded to "partnerships and actions outside of this Council to protect the Syrian people." She did not specify what those actions would consist of, although intelligence support and enhanced communications and logistical aid are already being provided. "You'll notice in the last couple of months, the opposition has been strengthened," a senior Obama official was quoted by the New York Times as saying last Friday. "Now we're ready to accelerate that."
However, as usual, the Obama administration is leading from behind and is clueless regarding the bigger strategic picture. As was the case in Libya, it is being pressured by France, the United Kingdom, and Arab League members to take forceful action with uncertain consequences.
France is out in front among the Western powers in pushing for aggressive action to bring about regime change in Syria, irrespective of what sort of government might follow. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already financing arms transfers to the opposition forces.
No one denies the humanitarian crisis brought about by Assad's use of heavy weapons in civilian populations centers and his regime's indiscriminate killings. But foreign fighters reportedly linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network are fighting on the side of Syria's opposition. The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has publicly supported the Syrian opposition. He has called on Muslim fighters from all over the region to wage a war of jihad against Assad’s “pernicious, cancerous regime.”
This is not a battle between good and evil, or between democracy and dictatorship as the Obama administration would have us believe. It is a battle between two shades of evil, and two versions of authoritarianism.
True, if Assad falls, Iran will lose a reliable ally. But that does not mean, as the Obama administration seems to think, that we will be picking up a new ally on Iran's border.
“If the Assad regime did fall, this would provide more Islamist militants with a potential opportunity to establish a new foothold in the heart of the Middle East,” said Charles Lister, an analyst with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “The temporary lack of state structures would also afford aspirant militant Islamists with a safe area for training.”
With radical Sunni Islamists, aided by al Qaeda, waiting in the wings to fill any power vacuum left by the fall of Assad's regime, we would be trading the devil we know for the devil we don't know and have no reason to trust. And although Sunnis and Shiites don't like each other, their more overarching common enemies are Israel and the United States. The enemies of their enemies are their friends. Hezbollah will still manage to get its arms and funding from Iran, transiting through a weakened Syria unable to control its borders, and will continue to serve as Iran's terrorist surrogates in the region and all over the world.
Even if Turkey were to somehow gain the upper hand in shaping post-Assad Syria because of its support for the rebels, that does not mean Syria will suddenly become a bulwark against the extension of Iran's influence in the region. To the contrary, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist who has called himself the "imam of Istanbul" and "the servant of the Shari'a," has stressed his country's warm relations with Iran and his antipathy towards Israel. Erdogan's government also has an appalling record on the protection of religious freedoms of minorities.
In summing up the post-mortem for the UN Security Council's deadlock on Syria, our UN Ambassador Susan Rice said that the Security Council had "utterly failed." The Obama administration is intent on interfering in a civil war and pushing forward to remove Assad with its own type of coalition of the willing outside of the auspices of the UN. It is being pulled in that direction without any idea of whether a post-Assad Syria will further extend the borders of the Islamist caliphate that the so-called Arab Spring has sprung on the world.
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