Posts tagged ‘assad’

February 4, 2012

Et tu, People’s Republic? Et tu?

I have coverage of this morning’s Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria up at UN Dispatch. If you’ve been paying attention to my last few posts here on how Syria is faring at the UN Security Council, you’ll know that the Russian veto came as no surprise to me. A disappointment, yes. But not a surprise. China on the other hand managed to surprise the hell out of me. When I first began hearing rumors of a double veto, I was definitely shocked. The meme that’s existed since the People’s Republic took over the seat from Taiwan, that China will likely abstain on a draft where it the situation is not in China’s backyard and doesn’t authorize force over the will of the state in question rather than veto, may finally be dead.

The reasons why Russia opposed this resolution are known to be numerous, legion even, mostly based around its arms sales and the use of its naval base at Tartus. China’s motivation for vetoing the resolution was overlooked entirely this week. Throughout the last several days of negotiations, not a peep was said about China having substantive issues with the draft. Not one journalist picked up rumors that Li Baodong’s vote would be anything other than an abstention, or if they did I missed the article. I don’t fault them though, as even the United Kingdom’s Mission was completely without warning:

Yes, we were surprised by the Chinese veto, particularly as they did not express any particular concerns about the text over several days of negotiations. So we thought that they were able to accept the text that was put into blue by the Moroccans.

China’s choice to make its strong opposition to the draft public strikes me as odd. A China who abstains on this draft while Russia vetoes would have the exact same outcome without the public grief that Russia would have gotten. China’s objections would never come to fruition as Russia had already tanked its chances of passing. Why is Beijing inviting bad publicity in the Arab World at a time when ties were beginning to strengthen?

There are two reasons I can think of for China to choice to cast a veto rather than abstaining: the first, that Russia was in the end wavering unless it had support in vetoing, which would forced China to come out against, lest provisions in the document China didn’t accept passed through unopposed. Given Ambassador Churkin’s attempts to amend the text in the minutes leading up to the vote, I doubt this would be the case.

The second is that China is sending a message to members of the Arab World that are less sure about Qatar and the Arab League”s new policies: “We won’t come for you next”. If and when new protests rise up, requiring the members of the GCC to use enough force that the issue makes it to the Security Council, China would veto intervention and continue arms sales. Given how cynical I feel right now, this seems more likely to me, but it still doesn’t square with China’s usual affirmation of the usefulness of regional bodies in solving regional issues. The main reason everyone expected China to abstain was that the request and basic structure of the draft came from and supported the League of Arab States.

No matter what the reason behind it, China seems to be getting less blame than Russia over this, by far. Still, I get the feeling China has likely miscalculated. Things are going to get worse in Syria before they get better. And should Assad fall, as the many new members of the Free Syrian army recruited based on this veto will strive for, the new government will remember who helped keep Bashar in power. Even if the Arab League plan is somehow implemented, the new members of the unity government will still need someone to blame; China has graciously volunteered to keep Russia company in this regard.

January 30, 2012

UNSC approval is vital to the use of force – True or False?

On Talk of the Nation today, Anne-Marie Slaughter made the case that should Russia not allow the United Nations Security Council move forward on Syria, the world can act without them. More specifically, she laid out a further explanation of her Atlantic piece on Syrian intervention:

Fourth, the intervention would have to receive the authorization of a majority of the members of the UN Security Council — Russia, actively arming Assad, will probably never go along, no matter how necessary — as an exercise of the responsibility to protect doctrine, with clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the resolution.

During the NPR interview, according to Twitter, Slaughter clarified that a “supermajority” of states on the Council must vote in favor of intervention for the international community to act without a resolution in their favor due to the veto of a permanent member. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to listen to the interview yet, so I’m unsure about whether she was speaking in reference to the draft resolution currently on the table, as introduced by Morocco, or if she means a hypothetical resolution under Chapter VII.

No matter the context, I had trouble with this when she first published the article, and I’m having even more issues with it now. The backbone of Professor Slaughter’s argument, and that of other interventionists, is that action in Syria is required to support the developing norms of the international community, namely the Responsibility to Protect. The problem with this is that in promoting the advancement of this norm, it would seem that going around codified international law would be required to do so. I am most certainly not an international law expert, but it would seem to me that codified laws take precedence over norms, particularly when a great deal of weight has traditionally applied to the approval of the United Nations Security Council to take action.

Great Power politics are undeniably a mess, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I’ve argued previously that I don’t believe that acting without the Security Council in practice is an ideal solution. Dodging the Council, though, would also prove to be a failure in principle as well. To actively say that a veto in the Security Council should be ignored seems to weaken the institution as a whole. Many of the same people advocating intervention in Syria screamed bloody murder over the Bush Administration launching strikes into Iraq without an authorizing resolution of the Security Council, due to the vetoes of France, Russia, and China. I should know, I was one of them. But the Bush White House at least had the slim thread of “upholding previous UNSC resolutions” as part of their justification. While nobody bought it, at least the effort was made, and it is true that several UNSC resolutions demanding that Saddam Hussein comply with international demands were passed in the past. Likewise, several chances were given to Milosevic’s Former Republic of Yugoslavia to adhere to the wishes of the Council and cease violence against its civilians; a true exhaustion of options building up to force existed. No such history exists against Syria in the Security Council.

It’s my opinion that if you’re going to say that the rules are bad and unfair, you should at least be consistent with it. The UN Security Council can’t be the end decision point in the use of force only in times where you agree with all 15 members’ views. Come out for a change of the rules governing the body wholesale, instead of claiming they can be circumvented in certain situations. There may well be a moral argument for intervening in Syria, but the idea that it’s any more legal to defy the Council in one situation or another doesn’t hold water. Either the UNSC is the final arbiter of international peace and security or it isn’t. And if it is, then the principles on which it was founded, as anachronistic as they may be in the 21st century are still worthy of consideration.

The fact remains that the veto is, as was devised by the Soviets as a condition for joining the UN in the first place, a tool to protect national interests. Well, at present, it is in Russia’s national interest to not have the West intervene in Syria. If, heaven forbid, the United States were to no longer be the sole superpower, we would certainly expect that in the case of a veto that action not be taken against our interests, a principle that was upheld at the height of the Cold War. I do approve of the idea of getting the Syrian National Council to guarantee Russia access to their current naval base in Syria even after Assad falls; it’s one of the few things keeping them from dropping Assad like a hot potato; Unfortunately, Vitaly Churkin’s threats to no longer protect Assad with the veto seems to have gone unheeded by Damascus, leaving Russia in a position where it may well do what it has hinted at in recent press statements.

I’m not entirely sure if there are even enough “aye” votes for the current draft at present in any case, let alone one authorizing force. The whip count may change after Tuesday’s briefing by the Arab League and the presence of several attendees at the ministerial level. But you can count on at least four abstentions, if not flat-out “no” votes. Is this ten the supermajority that Slaughter references? In any case, a “supermajority” of UNSC member states won’t be enough to override, particularly if the resolution tabled is the one that is up for discussion. The political factors on the table, including a peaceful transition to a unity government, can’t be enacted by force with any semblance of credibility in the face of a veto. Or can you only go around the Security Council when force is on the table? It may be a moot point, as with the lack of sanctions and military factors involved, there’s still a slim chance that Russia abstains, bringing China along with it. But in the event of a veto, the international community needs to decide whether the UNSC is the final arbiter on the use of force as it has long held or an obstacle to be overcome.

January 26, 2012

Syria is not, and will not be, the new Kosovo

David Bosco has a new piece up on the Multilateralist blog, looking at the European Union’s strategy for handling Syria. The EU has chosen to work entirely within the framework of the United Nations so far, including the Security Council, where Russia has vetoed and promised to do so again. Rather than being deterred by this set-back, the EU has rallied the other components of the UN, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, to pass condemnations by large margins. In noting this, Bosco finds it odd that talk of intervention without Council approval has not been seriously discussed by diplomats:

One interesting feature of the diplomacy surrounding both Libya and Syria is how little talk there has been of outsiders using force without Security Council approval (although this might have been a live topic if Russia and China had not acquiesced to intervention in Libya). The Kosovo precedent–humanitarian intervention without a Council mandate–has not resurfaced. The scant discussion of this option may signal a deepening of the understanding that states cannot initiate force–at least not for elective, “community” purposes such as humanitarian intervention–without the Council’s blessing.

I disagree with his view that the lack of discussion in citing the “Kosovo precedent” is a new understanding of the Council’s role in humanitarian uses of force. Rather, it’s worth noting that the Kosovo intervention was in many ways like Libya- unique. If a Kosovo precedent exists, it is one in which a set of four circumstances have to be met before force will be used without UNSC approval. The first, that of a humanitarian crisis with potential cross-border spillover, has been met. The second, the stalemate of the Security Council in handling the matter, has been as well. 

The third dynamic that was present in Kosovo, and is lacking in Syria to a certain degree, is a clear and systematic killing of one side by the other with genocidal repercussions. The Syrian government’s crackdown is fierce and brutal, but has yet to be one of imminent mass slaughter as we saw in Libya with Benghazi and in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. The fourth dynamic, and the most important for our comparison, is that there must be no Great Power interests at stake preventing intervention. Here is where Syria and Kosovo diverge the most. The Kosovo intervention was disapproved of by Russia due to cultural ties with Serbia and the use of the NATO alliance to carry it out. But no material links were truly in place between the two states. In Syria, however, there are economic and strategic ties with Russia at stake, in the form of arms sales to Damascus and the southernmost Russian naval base remaining. Russia will not abide by an intervention in Syria without Council approval and the other Great Powers don’t want to push Russia into retaliatory actions in other relations they have with Moscow.

I will note that the Free Syrian Army may have learned more from the Kosovo Liberation Army than we’re comfortable with. But they’ve learned the wrong lesson. In provoking the FRY into using overwhelming force against the Kosovars, the KLA prompted Western intervention. But in the fog of war surrounding Syria these days, it’s impossible to get a clear read on who is doing the killing in all instances, not when all of the dead have the same background. Should another situation arise in which all four dynamics are present, I do believe that we will see action taken without UNSC approval due to a Russian or Chinese veto. Syria, unfortunately, is not that case.

EDIT: Much to my surprise, Bosco actually responded to me as an edit on his original blog post. I think it’s only fair that I do the same. In particular, he was not convinced by my third and fourth dynamics marking the difference between Syria and Kosovo.

I don’t find these distinctions compelling. The estimates I’ve seen suggest that more have been killed in Syria than was the case in Kosovo at the time of international intervention. Pace Brown, pre-intervention Kosovo was not a situation of mass slaughter; instead, there had been a steady accretion of violence and displacement (in fact, the most intense campaign of forced displacement occurred after NATO intervention).

As to Russian opposition, is Brown suggesting that Russia would use force to oppose intervention in Syria? It appears to me that Russian objections are about the same order of intensity as they were in Kosovo. At one point in the run-up to the Kosovo intervention Boris Yeltsin reportedly called up Bill Clinton and screamed at him about the dangers of pushing Russia too far. And it’s worth remembing that during the Kosovo intervention, Russia actually did deploy its forces to seize Pristina’s airport before NATO forces could get there, leading to a tense standoff.

As to the first point, I will grant him that the numbers may be in Syria’s favor when it comes to the comparison. And while I thought I was up on my Kosovo history, I’ll admit that I wasn’t aware that the most systematic of the violence against ethnic Albanians was after NATO intervention, nor did I know about the siezing of Pristina’s airport. I’m still not sure, though, that the violence in Syria reaches the potential for razing of cities we saw in Libya or the focused killing of an ethnic group that we saw in Kosovo. It’s at an awkward point where nobody is entirely sure yet which way the ball will drop: towards a ratcheted up campaign against all civilians by the government, a more clearly defined and delineated civil war, or an unknown third option. Without knowing which way things are tilting, it’s hard to put together a response involving intervention that is as clear as Libya (“protect civilians” and give cover to rebels) or Kosovo (“protect civilians” and end violence against an ethnic group).

As for the second point, I’m not suggesting that Russia will actually use force. Even if they did, the naval forces they’ve previously sent to Syria as a warning would be overcome by the US Fifth Fleet. I am, however, saying that Russia will do everything it can to make the West’s lives miserable in other capacities. Vetoing previously agreed upon resolutions, revoking NATO’s ability to transport materials to Afghanistan and encouraging other CIS states to do the same, becoming a burr in the WTO now that they’re members,  just generally being even more obstructionist than usual. Libya pushed Russia’s relations with the West lower, that’s for certain, but I don’t believe they’ve hit rock bottom. I don’t know what that would look like, but I believe that intervening in Syria without Council approval would give us a good idea.

December 26, 2011

Time’s Up: Call Russia’s UNSC Bluff on Syria

More members of the League of Arab States’ observer mission are arriving in Syria today, ostensibly to pressure Damascus to halt its crackdown on protesters and the general civilian population which has been taking place since March. This mission already is in trouble, with reports of tanks firing on Homs coming across the wires, and France pressing the observers to make it their first stop.

Meanwhile, the UNSC sits dormant, frozen on how to proceed on Syria, with the clash growing more and more public. The chief instigator of this paralysis is the Russian Federation, still seeking to punish the West for its regime change in Libya. China, while also irked by the move, has been largely silent on the matter of Syria, leading me to believe that if presented with a viable option for promoting stability in the country, it would either abstain or vote in favor of the proposal, provided Russia do the same.

Russia has submit several versions of a draft on Syria now, but the Western powers have had their complains about it, namely that it doesn’t go far enough to inflict damage on Damascus. Russia counters that the West is simply pushing for regime change again. So if I were a member of a Western power’s mission, I’d say it is past time to have Russia put its money where it’s mouth is. They claim that their main interest is restoring peace within Syria’s borders. If they really want to pass their draft on Syria, then let’s do it. We’ll even accede to some of their demands, because that’s what P-5 equality means thanks to the veto.

I would recommend the US, France, UK, Germany and Portugal dropping the threat of sanctions as a demand for the resolution. Completely drop it as a non-issue. You know why? Because all of Syria’s major trading partners except for Russia and Iran are already sanctioning the state. Iran is dealing with its own economic problems relating to sanctions, so why waste our breath and political capital on not even implementing sanctions, only threatening them for non-compliance? Just drop it.

Also to be given up on, though much more painful: demands that Russia amend the language to place more of the onus on the Bashar al-Assad government. It’s tough to swallow, but swallow we must to get anything done. Russia isn’t going to allow a straight condemnation without also mentioning “extremists” attacking state institutions, so let them. It should Western policy to condemn these attacks anyway,  even if they are against a hated regime.

I would even recommend allowing Russia’s horrendously phrased and entirely unneeded clause stating that “nothing in this resolution shall be interpreted as authorization of the use of force” to be in the final draft. If Moscow wants it so badly, they can keep it. NATO isn’t moving towards using force in any event, nor are any states itching to unilaterally take down the Syrian regime. And it would be a nice save of face for Russia after their fury over SC/1973. So let the Russians celebrate those victories. But not without a cost.

First,  this resolution should be enacted under Chapter VII of the Charter, to give it the full weight and force of international law; no hedging from Assad and his government, no stipulations. Hard and fast, this is what is required of you. Article 40 should also be cited as the authorization for the Security Council putting its full support behind the Arab League’s observer mission. Full stop.

The regime should allow for full access to any and all areas that the observer mission requires in fulfilling LAS Resolution 7442, with or without prior notice to the Syrian government. To aid this mission, the UNSC should request member-states provide material support, including unarmed helicopters to transport observers across Syria, to prevent delays by the Syrian security forces which would be providing the ferrying and “security” of observers otherwise.

The West should request, in exchange for dropping its sanctions demand, that a preambulatory clause be added “noting that the LAS sanctions on Syria will not be lifted until the League has determined that the Syrian state is upholding its commitments”, or similar language. As a preambulatory clause, it merely describes the situation at present without authorizing or threatening new sanctions or even directly condoning the LAS sanctions as an operative clause would. This point is less important than the others and could be dropped if need be to garner final passage.

Finally, members of the IBSA coalition, India, Brazil and South Africa, have previously offered their services as monitors as well, a move that Russia has supported in previous statements and under the auspices of the BRICS alliance. The West should include a clause seeking the support of the Arab League for members of these relatively neutral, yet powerful in their own right, states to join the official LAS mission and report to the Security Council their findings.

Taken together, these steps would allow for several things to happen simultaneously. They would allow for the Russians to come away with a win in the Security Council that actually allows action to take place that the West wants to see happen. They would move to assure a successful Arab League mission to fully document what’s going on in the ground in Syria, something I’ve expressed my doubts about in the past. And they would allow for short-term action to be taken that actually puts Assad on notice as the West seeks, empower regional organizations as China and Russia want, and bolster the role of the rising Middle Powers as IBSA seeks.

So if I were a Western diplomat, this would be my first move after everyone returns to Turtle Bay from Boxing Day festivities. It’s time to call Russia’s bluff. Either they want to be constructive members of an international solution to the troubles in Syria, or they’re stalling for time for the Assad regime. Cards on the table, Russia. What are you holding?

December 23, 2011

A Game in the Shadows: Shining Light on Syria Harder Than Ever

Let us be crystal clear about one thing right off the bat: nobody outside of Syria’s borders has any earthly idea what’s going on inside with any sort of real detail. Nobody. It’s almost as bad, if not worse, for those that are actually inside Syria right now. Imagine if you will that you’re one of the few reporters who still have access inside Syria. The government watches your every move, restricts your travel to places of consequence, and only lets you see what it wants you to see. The same goes for NGOs on the inside; even the International Committee of the Red Cross has partially given up on working with the al-Assad regime.

These restrictions outside make it all the more difficult for those on the outside to grasp the true picture of Syria’s restive state. The report to the UN Human Rights Council issued several weeks ago on the torture and killing running rampant in Syria was intended to be produced with cooperation from the Syrian government. Instead, the government prevented any access whatsoever, forcing the commissioners assigned to the project to rely on interviews with refugees and Syrian armed forces defectors. The picture their words painted made up the background of the first official report on the hardships faced by civilians in the face of crackdown.

Several commentators have taken issue with the narrative being formed out of Syria, however. STRATFOR earlier this week issued a report questioning the veracity of the opposition’s death toll claims, noting that there was no way to verify the numbers. STRATFOR went on to say “most of the opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition’s weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime.”

First of all, I disagree with STRATFOR in their assumption that due to the fact that the numbers are coming solely from the opposition that they are untrustworthy. That said, it would be foolish to ignore completely the point behind the piece, that the opposition has a motive to inflate numbers and schisms within the regime. The fact I stated at the outset of this post remains true and swings both ways.

There are at present only two sources for information from the ground in Syria. The first is the state-controlled media controlled by Assad’s regime, which has claimed that over 2,000 members of the state security forces have been killed since March. The other is the opposition forces determined to remove Bashar al-Assad and his kin from power. Neither is the most credible of sources, with their desires and goals worn so plainly on their sleeves.

That situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon. As part of the stipulations on lifting their economic sanctions on Syria, the League of Arab States demanded access for a team of monitors to independently verify that the state has ended its crackdown on civilians. That team finally began landing in Syria yesterday, but were off to a rocky start from the beginning. Concerns have been raised, including by me, regarding the choice for the leader of this observation team: General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi. I appreciate that he was the point-man for coordination between the AU, Sudan, and UN in Darfur. But his full military history can’t be overlooked. Further, it is my belief that there is no way that the LAS monitors presence will somehow magically stop the violence or be granted, or have the political will to demand, free access to wherever they like in Syria with no forewarning. So long as journalists and NGOs are barred from observing conditions themselves, the prospect of knowing for sure what’s going on in Syria seems dim.

Things were made even more confusing today as twin suicide bombs were detonated near government buildings in Damascus, previously one of the few relatively quiet cities remaining in Syria. The government sponsored media immediately went on the air to denounce the attacks as being sponsored by al-Qaeda, likely in allegiance with protestors. Others weren’t so sure of the official government narrative:

Salman Shaikh, of the Brookings Institute in Doha, said said he was “deeply skeptical” of claims that al-Qaeda or an opposition group would have staged such an attack in Damascus.

“Syria doesn’t really have a record of this,” Shaikh said. “The security forces have not lost control of the situation to such an extent that this would seem likely.”

Shaikh also said it seemed suspicious that the media reported the attack so quickly, with pictures showing the car bombs already cleared away.

Within Syria, activists also expressed doubts about the government accounts of the explosions, saying the blasts could have been staged by authorities to discredit anti-government forces.

Omar al-Khani, of the Syrian Revolution General Commission opposition group, said residents of Kfar Sousa described little reaction from intelligence agents stationed near the targeted buildings when the explosions detonated. They did not move from their positions, these residents told Khani, but instead continued to drink tea. Snipers and guards at the building also did nothing, Khani said, citing the accounts from residents.

The timing of the blasts has also been called into question, with the LAS observers having only arrived yesterday. “The government quickly escorted the Arab League team to view the carnage, the Associated Press reported, saying the attack backed their longtime claims that the turmoil is not a popular uprising but the work of terrorists,”the Washington Post noted. It’s true, a bombing by the opposition, which killed 40 and injured over 100, many of those civilians, would be a compelling reason for the Syrian security forces to continue apace with their actions. The Free Syrian Army has denied responsibility for the bombing, the opposite action you normally see in suicide attacks, where the perpetrators can barely contain their desire to make known who has laid the government low.

If, however, it turns out that portions of the opposition are behind the bombing, then it poses a new difficulty for the movement. The use of suicide bombing to achieve their goal helps them lose the moral high ground they possessed before, having previously left the killing of civilians to the government. Further, it would strengthen Russia’s hand in attempting to prevent a strong resolution from passing through the UN Security Council.

What was once a clear-cut narrative has become increasingly muddied as the months have passed. The odds of intervention, aside from the long-shot I previously posited, have not seemed to grow, and today’s events may see them shrink. I was challenged by Aaron Ellis to provide, if I really think international intervention in Syria is the way to save lives, a strong political-military strategy that would both be achievable and logical. That already difficult task has been made much harder by today’s events.

Major news outlets are already shifting from referring the opposition from ‘protestors’ to ‘rebels’, making claims of objectivity all the more distant. There is no forthcoming Diogenes to shine a lamp on Syria, no real truth to be revealed to the world any time soon. The most we can do is attempt to make sense of the fragments of information we receive and hope to piece together a way to pump the breaks on the situation before Syria becomes an all-out civil war. Today may show that we’re already too late.

December 14, 2011

“I dare you to cross this line. I double dare you”: Turkey, Syria, and NATO

Syria is in no way resembling a nation on the mend. As the days go by, Assad’s determination to stay in power remains clear, as does the growing desire of his people to ensure that doesn’t happen. By any means necessary. This morning’s retaliatory strike against a Syrian armed forces convoy for an earlier incident involving the death of several protesters proves that point quite effectively.

Turkey, once Syria’s ally in the region, has turned its back on the Assad regime, protesting its wanton killing of civilians and placing sanctions on the state, alongside those imposed by the United States, European Union, and Arab League. Turkey also has constructed several refugee camps for the thousands of Syrians who have fled across the border. More likely than not, the Turkish government is also providing refuge for members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a collection of defected Syrian security forces, who are the probable launchers of this morning’s attack.

The stream of refugees into Turkey has the potential to be a destabilizing factor in the region, a threat to international peace and security that the Security Council has often invoked since the 1990s as the basis for acting under Chapters VI and/or VII of the Charter, exercising its power to restore the peace. In the Syrian case, however, Syria has the backing of the Russian Federation, despite growing pressure on Moscow to give up on Damascus, with Russia sure to veto any real action.

Syria has yet to take action against Turkey for hosting these refugees. But suppose Turkey keeps hosting these refugees and the FSA. What happens when an FSA member crosses back across the border into Turkey, with Syria in hot pursuit? What happens when, not if, Syria decides to attack a refugee camp in retaliation? Syria has already come close, coming within a quarter-mile of the border in June.

This could be the endgame that we see for Syria. The second, the absolute second, that Syrian security forces violate Turkish sovereignty, whether they actually engage with Turkish soldiers or not, it’s game over for Assad. Any hesitancy of the international community would be overturned, lest a greater crisis come about.

Turkey could invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter. And in turn would be able to invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty.

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

And from there all the pieces interventionists have wanted to be able to aid civilians in Syria before civil war spirals out of control would be in place. No need to invoke the Responsibility to Protect, though the principles would still be at play and understood. No circumvention of the UN Charter would be required, unlike NATO’s actions in Kosovo in 1999. Article VIII clearly provides for collective security and defense arrangements, such as NATO. And Article V of the North Atlantic Charter mirrors the language involved in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter as action must halt once the Security Council has moved forward on the issue.

So far, the only instance of Article V actually being called upon was in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Turkey has threatened in the past to use the Article to demand action, particularly against Iraq should Turkey have come under attack in the instances of the Gulf and Iraq Wars.

Refusal of a formal invoking on Article V, particularly after an incursion has taken place onto a members soil, would be the exact sort of crisis that opponents of Georgia’s ascension into NATO fear. But in this instance, Turkey has been a loyal member of NATO since 1949; despite official statements declaring that NATO has no intention on intervening in Syria, the body would have to act or risk facing a true existential crisis greater than the collapse of the Soviet Union. NATO’s collective power, without the mandate of SC/1970 to keep ground forces out of combat, would be effective in bringing about an end to Assad.

Turkish armed forces are no slouch themselves, either. Should Turkey actually enter conflict against Syria, the results wouldn’t be overly lopsided, but Turkey would most likely be able to overpower Syria. The campaign would take far longer without NATO support and capabilities, however, and the longer a military operation lasts the greater the likelihood of civilian deaths in the form of collateral damage. There’s also the potential of a “rally around the flag” effect coming into play, though the Libyan example makes me think this is less likely.

France has seemed the most eager out of the NATO heavyweights to take action against Syria, but has ruled out the possibility of unilateral action by any members. Give Sarkozy the opening of a multilateral framework and legal course of action, though, and he will surely move to take action; France has a certain soft spot for intervention in former territories and protectorates, and Syria is no exception. The US and UK would hesitate, but eventually move forward. The Obama Administration doesn’t want to be seen as leading from behind again in an election year, and the overturn of the Assad government fits within stated US goals. The UK would most likely lend support as possible, potentially spinning it as proof that it is less isolated from Europe than many have claimed following last week’s EU Summit.

Further, it is in my belief that an actual launch of military operations wouldn’t be necessary to have actual action take place on Syria finally. Should Turkey invoke Article V, Russia would surely raise the issue in the UN Security Council, with all its normal bluster and condemnation of NATO actions. It would be well within the means of the Western members of the P-5 to offer that Turkey stand down its actions, provided Russia go along with Security Council action on the matter, short of actual military force. This would allow Russia to save face on the region, rather than being faced with the humiliation of NATO carrying out action despite its less than subtle warnings over the past weeks and months, and ensure that the Security Council’s primacy on matters of peace and security be asserted over NATO, a goal Russia often quoted in protesting the Kosovo intervention.

I am aware that I come dangerously close to Friedman-ing in this post, here defined as imposing an overly neat and idealistic hypothetical solution to a complex real-world problem. However, this is a scenario that, while not likely, does fall within the realm of possibility. Further, I think it’s worth at least considering, as I’ve seen nobody else mention it, which is odd when you take into account the high likelihood of Syrian cross-border retaliation. The endgame described here probably isn’t the one we’re going to see play out in Syria. But it would certainly cut through a lot of the issues preventing intervention.

December 5, 2011

Backblog: Russia Delivers Missiles to Syria

Over the course of the last week, I was engaged in helping put on a Model United Nations conference for high school students. I’ve been with the group for over seven years now, serve on their Board of Directors, and love it to death. But it also means that for about five days every year, I’m almost utterly cut off from the daily news. So when I was actually able to take a second and skim the international section, I was able to take note of what I saw as an interesting development. Unfortunately, while I was able to jot it down, I wasn’t able to find time to post my thoughts. So here they are, slightly edited. Afterwards, I’ll throw in my two cents on some more recent developments since I wrote this piece last Thursday.

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The Russian Federation announced today that it has followed through with a previous sale of supersonic cruise missiles to the Syrian Arab Republic. The deal, which was completed in 2007 to the tune of $300M, provides 72 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. From the AFP article:

“The missiles, which operate as part of the Bastion mobile coastal defence system, will be able to protect Syria’s entire coast against a possible attack from the sea. Each Bastion system is equipped with 36 cruise missiles as well as truck-mounted radar and other equipment.”

The United States and other Western governments have been pushing Russia to cut ties with the al-Assad regime, particularly in light of the recently released report on Syrian human rights abuses presented to the UN Human Rights Council. Rather than withdrawing support, Moscow has seemed to move closer instead to Damascus.

While the sale was completed before the current uprising began, the delivery of the missiles themselves to Syria is a crucial show of support to the government in Damascus. A cancellation of the sale would have indicated a wavering in Russia’s stance, an opening which would be seized upon the UN Security Council by Western powers seeking to mirror Arab League sanctions on Syria. Instead, a veto of any strong action against Syria seems more likely than ever.

Further, the delivery of anti-ship missiles can and should be read in the same light as Russia’s deployment of warships off the coast of Syria: a deterrent against intervention. Turkey is reportedly if not moving to take unilateral action against Syria should the crackdown against protestors not cease, at least considering such a move if Ankara deems it absolutely necessary. A Russian threat to back Syria in defending its borders would cause any power to hesitate in launching a humanitarian intervention.

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Since then, Syria has offered to accept the observer mission the Arab League previously mandated inside its borders, on the condition that the sanctions regime imposed upon it be lifted. Much to the Arab League’s credit, the offer has been strongly rebuffed so long as the crackdown continues. Simultaneously, Syria has conducted live-fire exercises of several of its missile systems, in a move that was surely intended to deter Western governments from considering intervention, much in the same manner as the Russian ships’ presence. The Arab League’s steadfastness gives hope of swaying China into the abstention column on the Security Council in the coming weeks, but my pessimism on Russia remains, as will be made clearer in a forthcoming post.

November 17, 2011

At what point do we hear “Do Svidanjia, Assad”?

Things are getting very interesting in Syria. Whether that would be “good interesting” or “bad interesting” all depends on where you come down on the prospect of civil war, the continuation or dissolution of the Assad regime, and the merits of the Responsibility to Protect. Which is to say that the member-states of the United Nations Security Council is going to be making some very interesting choices soon from the point of view of the Syrian government and protestors.

What is apparent is that things are managing to get even uglier in Syria. Months of protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad have until recently only to months of repression and slaughter by the Syrian government. Yesterday was the bloodiest day of the crackdown yet, with over 90 killed according to observers, adding to the over 3,500 killed since March according to the UN. Despite insisting throughout this period that Assad is sure to survive the ongoing uprising, prognosticators on the future of the state have gotten a few surprises in recent days. These events both make the possibility of the United Nations stepping both more likely and far more remote.

Tilting the balance in favor of intervention is the unprecedented levels of regional isolation the Syrian Arab Republic is currently feeling. While the Arab League has gained a reputation for empty promises and vague gestures of condemnation towards recalcitrant members, on Sunday the League threatened to suspend Syria’s membership and levy sanctions should the violence not stop and a League drafted proposal to monitor the ceasefire not be enacted. Syria attempted to forestall this conclusion by calling an emergency session, but was quickly rebuffed by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As of yesterday, Syria has been suspended from the League of Arab States, and has been given a deadline of three days to halt the violence and place the terms of the agreement into affect before sanctions are enacted. Doing themselves no favors, following the announcement of the Arab League decision on Sunday, pro-Assad protesters took to the streets, looting and burning several embassies along the way, causing even greater international condemnation.

As Max Fisher of The Atlantic notes, however, this is no longer a simple case of unarmed protesters being massacred in the streets – civil war is brewing. Armed conflict is most certainly on the rise in Syria, as defectors turn from the Syrian Army in greater numbers, and groups like the Free Syrian Army begin to coalesce. Just yesterday, the FSA launched an attack on a compound belonging to Air Force Intelligence, known for their use of torture in interrogations.  As you can see in the video below, civilians are no longer allowing tanks to move through Syrian cities unhindered.

China has even come out in favor of the Arab League’s machinations, a testimony to its commitment to supporting regional organizations, even when they reach decisions that Beijing may personally be uncomfortable with:

“China supports the AL’s efforts to end the crisis in Syria and has called on concerned parties to implement the Arab League’s resolution at an early date and in a substantial and appropriate way. … Concerned parties should make concerted efforts and the international community should create favorable conditions for the implementation process.”

With this reversal from its earlier position of non-interference, the door may be reopened to bringing the issue of Syria before the Security Council. An earlier push led by the United Kingdom and France ended in a twin veto by China and Russia in October, placing the situation on the back burner since then. Following the Arab League’s threat, sanctions may be on the table again, opposed to the relatively simple condemnation of violence with the threat of sanctions that was considered previously.

This still leaves one very large obstacle, however: The Russian Federation.

Despite the pleas of the Syrian National Council, who met with Russian Foreign Minister and former UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, Russia seems determined to support Assad. Lavrov went so far as to call the activity in Syria akin to a civil war earlier today, while maintaining Russia’s position on keeping Assad in power:

“If some opposition representatives, with support from some foreign countries, declare that dialogue can begin only after President Assad goes, then the Arab League initiative becomes worthless and meaningless,” Lavrov said.

His statement speaks strongly to Russia’s concerns about intervention in civil wars, which Moscow tends to view as purely internal affairs. A rising death count won’t soon sway the Kremlin to act; to be completely candid, it’s highly doubtful that if the winner of this year’s Confucius Peace Prize were in Assad’s position that we would not see tanks in St. Petersburg.

Aside from ideological differences over sovereignty, and concerns about losing another foothold of influence in the region, the Russian Federation has many Legitimate Business Interests in place in the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia cancelled $73M worth of debt Syria owed from the days of the Soviet Union, freeing up Bashar to buy even more arms. According to Amnesty International, roughly 10% of Russia’s annual sale of arms goes to Syria; this would presumably include both light and heavy weapons, though the exact amount is difficult to determine, due to Russia’s reluctance to publish the exact dollar or ruble amounts of its weapons dealings. In either case, a sanctions regime against Syria would come at a time where Damascus is most willing to pay through the nose for Russian armaments.

Mark Goldberg at UN Dispatch notes that present day Syria is getting more and more like Libya, circa February this year. As the violence rises and the international community solidifies against Assad, the likelihood of the beginning of intervening, maybe not militarily but at least the issuing of a presidential statement, rises. This may be true, particularly in the event that a draft presidential statement is circulated merely condemning the violence without making a firm statement on President Assad stepping down. The comparison also marks a potential argument against the likelihood of concerted action. Russia’s argument since the moment the first NATO missile struck Libyan territory has been that the alliance has reached far beyond its mandate to use force, and that the eventual regime change that has since transpired was illegal in nature. By raising the spectre that the Russian Federation could be hoodwinked into abstaining on another critical vote under Chapter VII, the odds that Ambassador Vitaly Churkin push back, and hard, against any firm resolution on the matter grows.

The same would hold true of even getting to the nine votes from the Council needed to take action. Resolution 1973 contained the use of force authorization, but the door to that was opened with the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1970. Let’s assume that a British/French draft is tabled with heavy international sanctions against the Assad regime, along the same lines as the European Union’s, modeled after 1970. We have the three permanent Western powers in favor, along with the two WEOG seats, Germany and Portugal, and most likely Colombia as well. Lebanon will be firmly against the move, China potentially abstaining depending on the Arab League’s reaction. Nigeria, Gabon, and Bosnia and Herzegovina would likely be persuaded to go along with the draft as they were in October.  That just barely gets you to nine, allowing the West to act over the concerns of South Africa, Brazil and India. This still leaves Russia in play, however.

What would it take for Russia to reverse itself on Syria, allowing for at the very least an abstention from vetoing a new draft? Heightened isolation of the Assad regime may or may not help Moscow change its tune. A new Human Rights Council report on Syria is due out in the coming weeks. A negative report, which it is almost sure to be, may spur action taken by the HRC, along the same lines of that which prompted Libya’s expulsion from the body.

Also, a new diplomatic move in the General Assembly of all places may open the door for Russia to at least abstain on a condemnation of violence by the full Security Council. The GA, acting in lieu of the Security Council as is their right under the Charter when it is not discussing a matter of international peace and security, is preparing to table a resolution condemning Syria for its violence. Further, the sponsors of this draft include the usual European suspects, but is all the more remarkable for being potentially co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. The full text of it can be found here. A strong vote in first the General Assembly’s Third Committee: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian, then the full Assembly, would provide an ample smokescreen to allow for Russia to abstain on a condemnation of violence or at the very least a presidential statement in the UNSC.

What it all boils down to, however, is whether these, in the eyes of many, compelling arguments will persuade the Russian Federation to, if not act, not actively stand in the way of action being taken. The veto system was designed to prevent national interests from being over-ridden by the UNSC, this is the way it has always been and will likely always be. But it is quickly becoming clear that one way or another Assad is not going to end his days as the ruler of Syria. The next government will remember who stood behind Bashar al-Assad to his last and treat that state accordingly, and I highly doubt that Russia’s best efforts at mediation so far, as seen in this draft resolution circulated in August, will win them many accolades. Truly, it’s in Russia’s national interest to say “do svidanjia” to Bashar sooner rather than later.