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     May 10, '13

Saudis, Qatar fire UN torpedo at Syrian peace
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

UNITED NATIONS - It is a popular term at the United Nations. "Multilevel peace process" is used often to refer to complementary efforts in conflict-prevention, and the UN's history is rich with countless such examples. Yet, somehow, the UN has misdirected its energy in the case of Syria, by entertaining a General Assembly resolution that, if adopted, will likely act as a disservice - call it negative input - with respect to the US-Russian peace conference planned for the end of May.

The proposed conference, which promises to bring around the same table officials of the Syrian government and representatives of the political-military opposition, has been hailed by UN's

Special Envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, as the first "good news on Syria for a very long time". Yet, Brahimi's attitude toward the draft UN resolution on Syria, sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has reportedly been less enthusiastic, and he has expressed strong reservations about it, much like the Russian representatives at the UN who have called it "counterproductive".

Why? The answer is simple. This is a basically Janus-faced resolution. It contradicts itself, blames the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons (contrary to the finding of a UN investigative committee), and on the whole follows the subtle aim of paving the ground for the allocation of Syria's seat at the UN to the Western-supported opposition.

To elaborate, the proposed resolution, tabled for vote on May 15, calls for an "inclusive" political transition in Syria "through the commencement of a serious political dialogue between ... the Syrian authorities and the Syrian opposition". This is precisely what Moscow and Washington are aiming for with the peace conference, a brainchild of US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The Syrian government has nodded positively, according to the Russians, but the Syrian opposition is still debating whether to participate or boycott it.

But the resolution goes on to note in the next paragraph the "welcome establishment of the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces on 11 November 2012 in Doha, Qatar, as effective representative interlocutors needed for a political transition". The concept of "political transition" can of course be a tricky one, particularly since the resolution keeps referring to Arab League resolutions, which invariably call for the removal of Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad. In other words, it conveys the idea of a "dialogue" that is closer to surrender than compromise or "co-habitation".

As expected, Syria, Iran, and about a dozen other countries that also voted against a similar resolution last year have expressed strong reservations about this draft resolution, which is likely to be passed given the fury of diplomatic effort, by Qatar first and foremost. According to a number of Middle East diplomats, who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, it would be preferred if action on the resolution were to be postponed until after the peace conference at the end of the month.

So why are the Qataris and their Saudi partners in such a rush to get the resolution adopted, when it is patently obvious that its strong language against the Syrian government and accusation against Damascus as the only culprit for chemical weapons use in Syria are bound to lessen rather than strengthen Damascus's interest in a dialogue clearly nuanced for the regime's downfall?

This question owes its importance partly to the fact that the Syrian rebels have lost a good deal of their momentum and the regime has made substantial gains over them recently.

Indeed, if Qatar and Saudi Arabia are genuinely concerned about a ceasefire and the commencement of serious political dialogue in Syria, they would withdraw the resolution or, at a minimum, try to reschedule it until after the results of the upcoming peace conference are clear.

Their real fear, perhaps, is that the White House may be changing its tune on Syria, stepping back from the earlier calls for Bashar's immediate removal and now considering this as the likely end-result of intense negotiations - hardly a favorite option of the Qatar-Saudi duet, who want to act as kingmakers in troubled Syria.

Needless to say, the actual balance of forces on the ground is the key determining factor, not the roll call at the UN. Nevertheless, in the current diplomatic whirlwind on Syria, the shifting winds in favor of a genuine political dialogue between the government and the opposition are gaining power, all the more reason for the UN member states to re-think the wisdom of a new resolution that emphasizes "political transition" to a post-Assad regime.

The fact is that Bashar al-Assad has weathered two years of military storms and can now boast of having inflicted serious blows to the opposition; that is, he is here to stay for the foreseeable future and, hence, the peace efforts should focus on ceasefire, the transition to normalcy and preparations for national elections under international supervision. Any talk of a "transition" without Assad is ultimately futile, given the centralized authority in Damascus and the likelihood of the regime's evaporation altogether under the guise of a "transition".

With respect to the draft UN resolution's lop-sided condemnation of the Syrian government over chemical weapons and its call on Damascus to "refrain from using, or transferring to non-State actors, any chemical and biological weapons", it is noteworthy that the UN officials investigating the matter have pointed the blame toward the rebels rather than the government. As a result, if this resolution is adopted next week, it will be highly at odds with UN's own finding on the chemical weapons culprits in Syria.

A wiser approach by the UN General Assembly would therefore be one of "wait and see", incorporating the final finding of the UN investigators, instead of acting as a blind jury that looks for evidence in only one direction.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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