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    Middle East
     Feb 2, 2012

Fighting over Syria at the UN
By Victor Kotsev

Some analysts say that the ongoing confrontation at the United Nations Security Council over Syria brings back memories from the Cold War; the analogy, however, is far from perfect. The face-off and all the bargaining that is apparently going on under the counter is more symptomatic of a situation where multiple players and alliances vie for power in a free-for-all brawl than of the bipolar world order that ended a little over two decades ago.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems doomed, but its day of reckoning might take some time to come.

Barring decisive international action (which still seems distant), and given the many divisions in the Syrian opposition, it is not inconceivable that the regime might win the military confrontation in its current form, similar to how former Libyan leader Muammar


Gaddafi made a surprising comeback early last year (prompting a Western-led intervention that eventually led to his demise).

However, even if he manages to crush the opposition as it exists now (something that is far from certain), Assad can hardly hope to repair the economy. Widespread poverty - even hunger - was among the leading reasons why the protests erupted last March in the first place; suffice it to say that the economy has been in free-fall ever since.

Only generous foreign assistance can help sustain Syria right now, and the regime has never been more isolated. The only international donor it can count on is Iran, which itself is engaged in a fierce confrontation with the West and is feeling the economic weight of sanctions.

The situation in the country is perhaps best summed up in a conversation between a young taxi driver from the city of Idlib and Ehsani, a Syrian-American banker whose accounts frequently feature on the blog of Syria expert Joshua Landis:
"What does the president have to do to gain your support from this point?" I ask. "It is too late. There is nothing," came the quick response. "How long will it take for the revolution to succeed and topple the regime?" "Four years," came the quick response. Naturally, I act surprised. He makes a bet with me that it will be this long. The four years are needed before the country is truly starving and when even the eight-year old is forced to go down onto the streets to join the protests. "Only then, will the regime fall," was his explanation. [1]
Ehsani is not the only observer who criticizes the Syrian opposition and its ability to bring down the regime. "A wide range of activists and diplomats are voicing concerns with the SNC [Syrian National Council, an opposition government-in-exile based in Turkey], criticizing its lack of cohesion and effectiveness," reports Justin Vela for Foreign Policy Magazine.

"While the majority of them have not given up on the council, they paint a picture of an organization out of touch with the protesters on the ground and dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood." [2]

Meanwhile, a veritable fog of war has fallen over the country, so much so that the United Nations stopped counting the dead in January 2012 (activist groups report over 7,000 dead since the start of the uprising). The gulf between the government narrative and the accounts of the opposition has grown, and it is extremely difficult to verify any information coming out of Syria.

Both sides allege foreign involvement in the crisis, with the government pointing a finger at Qatar and the West and the opposition claiming that Iranian forces are actively involved in the repression. Days ago, the rebels reported capturing several Iranian soldiers. [3]

In the past few days, hundreds were reported dead as regime forces launched an offensive in the capital Damascus, in the city of Homs and elsewhere in the country, following territorial gains by the opposition forces last week. It seems that the army was largely successful in driving the rebels back, [4] despite continued claims of the opposition that it controls large parts of the country. [5]

As a note, the Muslim Brotherhood is clearly a major force in the opposition, even though sweeping generalizations about the rise of political Islam in the Sunni parts of the Middle East may not be sufficient to explain the opposition dynamics. We can infer bits and pieces about these dynamics also from the erratic behavior of the Palestinian militant organization Hamas, which has vacillated between silence and tacit opposition to Assad's repression (Hamas is considered an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, but had also been a close ally of the Syrian regime prior to the unrest).

At the same time, a different kind of drama is unfolding at the United Nations Security Council. After the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission in Syria over the weekend due to "the critical deterioration of the situation", it spearheaded a push at the council to pass a resolution (introduced by Morocco) that calls on Assad to step down and for a national unity government to be formed.

Russia, backed silently by China and other powers wary of a repeat of the Libya intervention, is putting up stiff resistance. In October last year, Russia and China used their veto power at the council to shelve a similar resolution condemning the Syrian regime.

On the one hand, Russia is fighting hard for one of its closest remaining allies in the Arab world, and also for its only naval base in the Mediterranean (near the city of Tartus). It keeps accusing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Arab League of breaking unwritten understandings on Libya and (with good reason) of stretching the mandate of the resolution that authorized an intervention against Gaddafi.

It refuses to accept verbal assurances by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top European diplomats that Syria is completely different and the Libyan scenario is a "false analogy".

This indeed brings up memories about the Cold War status quo; yet if the Russian position seems a bit theatrical and forced, it is perhaps a reflection of reality. Let us not forget, for example, that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin faces an unexpectedly complicated presidential election in a few months, and quite a few Russian voters feel at least a measure of nostalgia for their country’s former glory during Soviet times.

Moreover - and this sheds light on claims that Russia sacrificed Libya back in the day in order to be able to support Syria longer - Russian leaders cannot really ignore the outrage of the international community forever, at least not the way their Soviet predecessors did. Kremlin officials have themselves hinted at this in recent interviews. [6]

Yet just how much the world has changed since the end of the Cold War is evident also from the Western unwillingness to go all the way in confronting a fellow Security Council member. Little mention has been made so far, for example, of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 377 (also known as "Uniting for Peace"), which was specifically designed by the US to bypass a Russian veto at the Security Council during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Today, the administration of US President Barack Obama and its allies seem reluctant to go down this path, perhaps unwilling to put into question their own veto power at the council, and perhaps uncertain of the backing they can win at the General Assembly for a resolution against Syria.

Thus, amid rumors that the Syrian opposition has offered Russia to keep its naval base if it withdraws its support for Assad, and speculation about the way other countries might vote, we can expect the haggling, and the histrionics, to continue at the United Nations on Wednesday. Meanwhile on the ground, there are few prospects of a let-up in the bloodshed.

1. Where In The Tunnel Are We? – By Ehsani, Syria Comment, January 31, 2012.
2. Rebels Without a Clue, Foreign Policy, January 31, 2012.
3. Syrian rebels claim they captured Iranian soldiers, Ha'aretz, January 27, 2012.
4. Syria security forces retake Damascus suburbs from rebel forces, Ha'aretz/Reuters January 31, 2012.
5. 32 Dead as Rebel Army Says Regime No Longer Controls Half of Syria , An-Nahar, January 31, 2012.
6. Russia's support 'arsenal' for Assad exhausted-Kremlin aide, Reuters, January 23, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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