December 17, 2011
Counter-Revolutionary Forces Converge On Syria
Russian officials have finally scrambled to release a proposal calling for an end to Syria’s bloodshed. The draft, which Moscow intended to submit to the United Nation’s Security Council (UNSC), "urges the Syrian government to put an end to suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association." Still leery of Russian diplomacy, Western capitals responded by welcoming the move as a “positive development.”
For now Moscow’s counter-revolutionary strike is unfolding as planned.
Several overriding factors currently determine the Western response to Russia’s political resolution. Given Moscow’s faithful (and self-interested) devotion to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, almost any political reciprocation must be positively received on the surface, otherwise Russian officials will immediately condemn the West’s double-standard. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently argued, "If those who refuse to exert pressure on the armed extremist part of the opposition are at the same time accusing us of blocking the work of the Security Council, I would call that position, in the final analysis, immoral.”
Western capitals also seek to flip Russia’s position in the UNSC, where Moscow has provided Damascus with the highest level of international cover. Some officials are working under the impression that Navi Pillay’s latest report pushed Moscow to the table; the UN’s human rights chief estimated Syria’s death count at 5,000+. French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud explained on Friday, "We think that it's because Russia has felt the pressure of the international community, especially after the shocking report of Mrs. Pillay.”
Speaking from Ankara, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pointedly added, "It's clear from the steps that Russia took that more and more of the international community is coming together as one to say to Syria and to the Assad regime that we can no longer tolerate the kind of killings that are going on, the kind of abuse of human rights that have gone on in Syria and that Assad needs to step down.”
Yet the dilemma of bringing Russia into the UN’s fold remains unsolved. Judging from Moscow’s proposal and response to Syria (and the Arab revolutions in general), Araud described Russia’s counter-offer in its raw form: “a maneuver.” The proposal ignores sanctions against al-Assad’s support group and calls for the kiss of death: a “dialogue” with the regime. These conditions (along with skewed language against the pro-democracy movement) triggered automatic red flags within Syria’s opposition and the Western community.
“It’s unfortunate that Russia still doesn’t recognize the reality of the problem,” Mohammed Bassam Imadi, a defected Syrian ambassador and current member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), said from Istanbul. “The Russian initiative is not really a just one. They ask for dialogue now. How can you talk with someone who is holding a pistol pointed at your head? This is not possible.”
In a statement released by the French Foreign Ministry, spokesman Bernard Valero cautioned that Paris is "ready to work with all her partners" to resolve Syria’s crisis, but "the Russian text contains points that are not acceptable in their current form.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also indicated that the Obama administration won’t support Russia’s proposal because it presents “a seeming parity” between the Syrian government and peaceful protesters.
“Hopefully, we can work with the Russians who, for the first time, at least are recognizing that this is a matter that needs to go to the Security Council.”
What makes Western resistance so jarring is Moscow’s publicly-declared strategy to copy the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative in Yemen. Following Washington and Riyadh’s lead without question, Russia wholeheartedly backed a proposal that has left Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in power. Lavrov raised the discrepancy between U.S. policy in Yemen and Syria throughout November and December, and now Russia seems to be upping its brinksmanship by emulating Washington’s manipulation of the UNSC. The council unanimously approved the GCC’s initiative despite widespread opposition from Yemen’s pro-democracy movement.
Russia "gives the appearance of movement while presenting a text which is totally unbalanced and which is empty," Araud told Le Monde, a statement that applies equally to US/EU policy in Yemen.
These conflicting interests continue to breathe life into the possibility that Washington remains open to cooperating with Moscow. Although diplomacy is a time-consuming process, often necessitating incremental steps and compromise, no foreign power has offered unambiguous support to Syria’s opposition movement. The Obama administration got off to a slow start in Syria, overwhelmed in the region but also cautious of rocking the status quo. Washington and the EU then threw their weight behind the Arab League’s proposal with hopes of “Arabizing” Syria’s foreign engagement.
“Despite the efforts of everyone, the Syrian regime has remained defiant,” Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told the EU’s parliament on Tuesday. “None of the opportunities offered by the Arab League have yet been accepted. We think they need to comply fully with the Arab Plan of Action. They want to find excuses and dilute the effectiveness of an observer mission but the Arab League remains strong in their position.”
Fresh rumors of a political deal described the same scenario at Yemen: the two capitals are negotiating a consensus candidate to replace al-Assad.
The League’s current proposal already threatens to prolong Syria’s crisis and would shield al-Assad from regime change. U.S. criticism towards Russia also limited itself to sanctions and the burden of responsibility, leaving “dialogue” on the table. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland urged Moscow to include the rest of the Arab League’s conditions, when Lavrov is suspiciously eager to oblige. Speaking after consultations with Algiera’s Mourad Medelci, Russia’s Foreign Ministry insisted, "Our advice, which has been given to Damascus and which we affirm on a practically daily basis, is to sign this protocol and accept observers as soon as possible.”
The Arab League would postpone Friday's meeting in order to clear the world’s stage for Russia - the latest delay in a well-traveled pattern. Syrians responded by protesting and chanting, “the Arab League is killing us.” Now the Arab League is so bold as to hail “positive signs” from Syria, a premeditated response arranged under Russian guidance. Ahmed Ben Helli, the League’s deputy, predicted on Saturday morning, “I expect the signing will happen soon... It will not be today.”
Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani, Qatar’s Foreign Minister, has since clarified, “We will not put forward a new initiative. We will put forward to the Security Council the Arab initiative and Arab resolutions. We are not speaking about military intervention.”
The League set a new "deadline" on Wednesday.
Urging the Arab League, UN and Moscow to cozy up equates to encouraging Syria’s counter-revolution. Lining up the UNSC would appear to assist Syria’s pro-democracy movement, except Russia vocally seeks to copy Yemen’s imperialist takeover. Similarly, Moscow is presumably guarded against Western manipulation in the UN, and can stall the body for months by staggering its conditions. Russian oil is even benefiting from sanctions against Syria and Iran, while Beijing awaits as a final stopgap behind al-Assad’s regime.
Western countries must coordinate with any international parties willing to engage Syria, but not at the expense of its revolutionaries.