Two weeks ago The Trench speculated on the possibilities of intervention in Syria. One of these contingencies - organized insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s regime - is already underway as oppositional representatives and commanders await further assistance from foreign powers. Those governments opposed to al-Assad’s rule can pursue this objective through their own volition, but direct military aid faces a stiff political battle in the UN Security Council. Walid al-Mouallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister, recently alerted the West of Moscow’s “red line."
“Russia cannot accept foreign intervention.”
This battle is set to commence after the Arab League decided to create space between the regime. Accused of cooperating with al-Assad and his security details, the League’s monitors were cornered by oppositional forces demanding material action and given no room for error. al-Assad’s tactical shifts left hundreds of protesters dead since mission commander and Sudanese General Muhammad Ahmed al-Dabi arrived in late December. At least 100 people were killed as the League met over the weekend, with government forces attacking multiple cities (Hama, Homs) from multiple directions. al-Assad also continues to organize mass rallies in praise of his “comprehensive reforms,” another sign that he has no intention of halting his crackdown.
A staunch defender of the regime and his mission, even al-Dabi is now forced to admit, “The situation at present, in terms of violence, does not help prepare the atmosphere” for negotiations. Violence has increased "in a significant way.”
Unable to broker a compromise with al-Assad, a divided League is increasing its pressure to maintain its own credibility with Syria’s opposition and Western capitals. Qatar currently leads the face of Arab intervention, with Riyadh looming in the background, and the withdrawal of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members helped push the debate into the UNSC. Turkey also hosted GCC foreign ministers in Istanbul to declare “unequivocal support” for the League’s decisions, including the recent suspension of its observer mission. This chain of events represents a modest victory for Syria’s opposition, but the UNSC’s battle could exceed the Arab League’s mission in length and casualties.
First circulated on Friday, a preliminary UN draft “calls on al-Assad to hand over authority to his deputy and calls for the formation of a national unity government.” The document also “condemns the continued widespread and gross violations of human rights" and demands an immediate ceasefire. al-Assad would be given 15 days to comply or risk new diplomatic and economic sanctions, with military force reserved for the political endgame. For now the UNSC is prepared to support Arab-led initiative “to facilitate... the transfer of power from the President and transparent and free elections.”
Specific analysis of the League’s initiative will be published shortly. Copied from the GCC’s power-sharing deal in Yemen - an unpopular and unstable agreement - the Arab League’s plan threatens al-Assad and Syria’s opposition alike.
Its secondary target is Moscow, where the UN’s political battle will rage most intensely. Months of pressure from the Obama administration and European powers such as Britain, France, and Germany is gradually encroaching upon Russia’s red-line, generating an unpredictable outcome. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded to the UN’s Friday diplomacy by speaking to Moscow: “We now have all of the members of the E.U., the United States, Australia and the Arab League countries making very clear that it's time for Assad to step aside... our question to those who are still protecting him is whether Syria really can go forward under his leadership, given the violence that we've seen."
So far Russia’s response hasn’t been positive. Labeling the current draft “unacceptable,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov instead pointed out the “positive aspects” of stopping violence and launching a “national dialogue” to “persuade the Syrian opposition to start a process of reconciliation.” He said Moscow was seeking clarification over future punitive measures. As for al-Assad’s fate, “Any decision about a future political settlement in Syria must be made during the political process without... preliminary conditions, and the demand for Assad’s resignation is a preliminary condition.”
Gatilov insists, “We cannot support a call to support Assad’s departure in any UN Security Council resolution.”
On Sunday Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his own disapproval of the League’s decisions, lobbying for more observers and time to open negotiations with Syria’s opposition. Lavrov has been a vocal advocate of the GCC’s deal in Yemen, but the Foreign Minister is keeping his cards close in Syria. No draft should be formally considered, in Lavrov’s opinion, until the League’s observer mission submits a report later this week. He might even be going through the trouble of ignoring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will attend UN meetings tomorrow and has been trying to reach Lavrov for 24 hours. “He’s in Australia and apparently unavailable,” according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Russian analysts also point out the realities of an election year, and Vladimir Putin’s desire to avoid being outmaneuvered by the West in Libya and Syria.
As mentioned earlier, Syria’s opposition is now in danger of being squeezed by international forces, a process that inevitably weakens the control over a democratic transition. Most oppositional forces - including Syria’s National Council (SNC) and Local Coordination Committees - support international intervention on various levels, either humanitarian (no-fly) corridors into Turkey or military assistance to the national resistance. After receiving assurances from Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal that the Kingdom will recognize the SNC “as the official representative of the Syrian people," the council expects action to eventually replace diplomacy.
Bassma Kodmani, a Syrian-French member of the SNC’s 10-member executive board, explained, “I grew up hating NATO. I was taught it was the devil. It was unimaginable for decades for any Syrian to even think about asking for [help] from the West... But now people on the ground want humanitarian intervention. They want to be rescued.”
However the SNC still faces resistance from the Syrian National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which the group has unsuccessfully attempted to link with. Unlike the SNC, the NCC adheres to non-intervention and supports Russian diplomacy; spokesman Haitham Mannaa told the AFP “we hope to see Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi head to Moscow before New York.” Although Mannaa reasonably argues that “sidelining” Russia will increase its support for al-Assad, this policy relies on two authoritarian forces to reach a democratic outcome.
Giving Russia “a bigger role” in the political process will bring disaster upon Syrians of all backgrounds.
Conversely, Kodmani stands firm on the SNC’s demand that al-Assad “move out before the transition can occur… he has no intention of having dialogue.” She said the opposition rejects open dialogue, instead favoring “a discussion on the modalities of [Assad’s] departure.” As a counterweight to the NCC, SNC chairman Burhan Ghalioun is wooing Moscow to let go of al-Assad and continue its “historic relationship” with Syria’s people. At the same time, the SNC has allegedly rejected an invite to Moscow. Whether the SNC and LCC will accept one of al-Assad’s vice presidents, Farouk al-Sharaa or Najah Al-Attar, remains uncertain, but the streets may take the decision out of their hands. Popular revolutionaries across the region are committed to regime change, not “sharing power” with the regime.
Another executive minister, Abdel Baset Seda, just clarified, "I say clearly that our position has not changed and it is that there is no dialogue with (President Bashar al-Assad).”
The council’s plan is to move forward in the UNSC and hope “the Arab League has the clout to convince the Russians to change their position.” Kodami says that Syrians expect “a serious Security Council resolution that says the council looks to blame the regime and then sets a period of time after which it will take other measures.” Meanwhile the SNC is mapping, coordinating with, and financing military groups operating in Syria and Turkey. Defected military commanders and experts are busy “linking them into some form of command chain."
In short, preparations are being made to infuse a long-term insurgency with foreign assistance.