Posts tagged ‘sanctions’

February 21, 2012

The Enduring Myth of Monoliths

In this day and age, most convenient fictions are easy enough to spot, with a high level of cynicism running rampant and an active “peanut gallery” component to the discourse in the form of bloggers. Which is why it’s so troubling to me that some basic narratives remain virtually unchallenged, or if opposed, done so quietly and on a small scale. In this instance, my grief is with the propensity of commentators and policy-makers alike to rely on the convenience that monolithic perceptions of institutions provide.

There are times where the concept of a monolithic institution is expedient, when attempting to give broad overviews of situations. There’s also a level of analytical use to seeing things from a zoomed-out, macro level, rather than examining the nuts and bolts of an institution. However, there’s a responsibility to investigate past the surface once that initial glance is achieved. In reality, monoliths are more often than not anything but unified once you delve into their inner workings, a lesson that the United States has been horrendously slow to grasp, sometimes leading to disastrous presumptions and bases for policy decisions.

During the Cold War, everyone knew that the Communist World was a group of states linked by the singular notion of communist domination over democracies. As should have been apparent as far back as Josef Tito’s expulsion from the Cominform in 1948, the idea of Communism being a single-minded organism, as opposed to a colony of individual thinkers, was a myth. Instead, the myth of a partnered Russia and China managed to hold on for decades, with the fact that the two were both Communist in their form of government making any differences in policy between the two dismissible. It took until the Nixon Administration to realize that the split between the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was large enough to be able to use it to the advantage of the United States, prompting President Richard Nixon’s much heralded trip to China.

A distressing need to have simplicity in narrative is apparent when examining opposition movements, in this particular instance the uprising in Syria. For the last two weeks, we’ve been informed of the need to “arm the Syrian opposition” to take action against President Bashar Assad and the security forces of Syrian. Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain came out recently in favor of running guns to the Syrian opposition, though they would put it a different way, and they aren’t alone in the Senate. Even the editorial board of The Washington Post has come out in favor of providing supplies to the opposition:

So how to stop the massacres? The most available and workable solution is tactical and materiel support for the anti-regime forces, delivered through neighbors such as Turkey or the Persian Gulf states. Opponents say that would increase the violence, but violence in Syria will continue to escalate as long as the regime believes it can survive by force. Others worry that radicals among the opposition will be empowered. But what will strengthen extremists the most is the failure of democratic nations to act and the entry of groups such as al-Qaeda into the vacuum.

Despite the weight of the Post’s opinion, it doesn’t circumvent the fact that beneath the thin veneer of unity in cause, the removal of Assad, there is no one opposition movement. The Syrian National Council (SNC), composed of exiles, dissidents within Syria, and the Local Coordinating Committees, has assumed the mantle of international darling of the same vein as the Transitional National Council in Libya. However, there’s a small hitch in that analysis; the National Coordination Committee, a divergent group based entirely within Syria, and composed of enough groups to deny the SNC sole legitimacy. Then there’s the matter of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is itself a splintered group of former soldiers and transplanted fighters looking to take on Assad, as Marc Lynch points out in his new CNAS piece. Any semblance of a united front is a myth formed from their hatred of the Assad family.  I had a lengthy conversation with Adam Elkus, Dan Trombly, Rei Tang, Dan Solomon and Robert Caruso on this and other Syria topics on the Intervention podcast, so go listen for an in-depth conversation on the situation as it stands.

When speaking of opposition movements in general, it’s extremely easy to cast them as “the opposite of X”, X being whatever leader or idea has fallen out of favor at present. What has to be clear, however, is that the divergent views that may be allied together towards a certain goal in the short-term are likely to be fractious on the coalition once that goal is met or denied completely, if a goal can be decided on in the first place. As Trombly wrote in December on Russia’s at the time nascent protester movement, the streets of Moscow were filled with Russians from across the political spectrum. Leftist, far-leftist and nationalistic parties have come together in the goal of defeating Vladimir Putin, but they are no means united. In the strong likelihood that Putin wins the upcoming election in the first round, how likely is it that the coalition can hold together at the seams?

The same can be said for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was viewed, despite extreme differences from city to city, and within cities themselves, as a singular entity. I recently had the chance to listen to an Occupier talk about why the system broke down, and came away with the belief that the educated elite sought to make changes in the system as it stood, but the group never coalesced around a united set of goals. Once winter set in, and the breadth of views, from reforming the political system to creating a system of shared wealth to the need to draw the state into crackdowns, led to a muting of the voice of the group in favor of complacency, exposing to all the lack of unity visible previously to many. The simplistic narrative that surrounds both of these movements prevents understanding of how they, and other movements, function, in favor of a broad-brush stroke.

Those working against state interests aren’t alone in being accredited with non-existent unity. The state itself is often seen as a monolithic institution, rather than a collection of individuals, at the risk of sounding overly constructivist. In developing strategies and plans of countering actions that go against American interests, the offending regime and state are the only components taken into account it would seem. This isn’t to say that states are falling out of favor as the preferred standard unit of international relations. No matter how the sands may be shifting, power is still held in state institutions, for good or for ill, and at a certain point attempting to map every variable that would affect a state’s decision-making process would become overly cumbersome to planners. However, there does exist a responsibility to not gloss over the effects of decisions taken against states on those people who reside within the border. There is a difficulty, I must admit, in reconciling the knowledge that policy-tools from economic sanctions to the use of force are legitimate protests against a state’s actions, when the people of that state have no agency in their state’s choices.

Nowhere is this sharper for me than the US’s policy in Iran. Following the effects of sanctions on the population of Iraq was covered extensively by the media in the mid-1990s, broad, sweeping embargoes fell out of fashion for a time. In their place, target sanctions against elites or “smart sanctions” were seen as the wave of the future, capable of inflicting pain upon governments  while sparing their people. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a reversal of that trend in Iran, with the potential for the same to be seen in Syria. It’s tough to realize that the collapse of the rial isn’t just preventing Tehran from replacing centrifuges in their nuclear facilities, but keeping families from being able to buy bread, when the democracy present in Iran exists so-far as the Ayatollah allows it. I’m not saying the Obama Administration’s policy of sanctions is a failed one. But Americans in general, and policymakers in particular, have to be cognizant of the multiple dimensions inherent in the many stages of conflict, and willing to be brutally honest about the effects of any action taken.

Finally, the concept of international institutions writ large, and the United Nations in particular, often face down the convenience of monoliths. There is a basis for this interpretation when considering the United Nations, but for a much smaller set of instances than the general population and many commentators are able to discern. When actions are taken by the Secretariat, the team of international public servants headed by the Secretary-General, this is a viable instance of the United Nations acting as an institution of its own. However, when critiques are lobbied at the UN, it’s often in reaction to perceived inaction, most recently following the Syria vote in the Security Council. Here we see the result of the United Nations as a collection of states, in that Russia and China voiced their displeasure with a prescribed action, and under the rules all have agreed to, vetoed said action. The easier idea to grasp is that the United Nations has its own flag and therefore is clearly the source of the problem; it’s much easier to separate the two tracks that the body has to balance.

Without that nuance, you get policy-makers and legislators like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher denouncing the institution as a whole and the works it performs on the basis of its inclusive membership. International institutions serve the will of their states, in allowing the powerful to set agendas, to dominate discourse, and push methods of actions. However, they also serve to amplify and enhance those aims. The United Nations is a collection of states acting in their own interest. The United Nations is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Both statements are true, rendering more simplistic narratives false.

What this all comes to is a frustration with the simplest narratives gaining the most traction and amplification. Broad strokes are fine, so long as they’re quickly replaced with more thoughtful examinations of the issues and institutions being dealt with. If they aren’t, they become a crutch for policy-makers to lean on, continually surprised when they turn out to be made of rubber. I get that nuance is annoying; it gets in the way of quick and easy decisions. But I prefer difficult reality over convenient mythology any day.

January 11, 2012

The biggest challenge facing sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program? Mission creep.

I posted a little less than a week ago on the effectiveness of Iran’s sanctions, and yet the debate continues apace on the Internets. The need for this is simply beyond me, but what are you going to do? I suppose that more useful discourse is being produced. I suppose. In any case, we’ve seen a few different pieces crop up in the last few days, the latest to come across my Blackberry being a piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter. In it, she pushes for a solution that allows both the United States and Iran to save face, advocating away from a regime of sanctions for sanctions sake, a conclusion that many others have come to. This is hard to do, though, in light of pieces like the Washington Post piece that was published last night, originally with the title “Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. Official”.

Which leads me to think about the noticable mission-creep that seems to be occuring when it comes to Iranian sanctions. I noted on Friday the growing scope of the national and supranational embargoes being placed upon and considered against Iran. In that post, my focus was on the unconsidered humanitarian effects that these sanctions would impose, but I want to take a step back and consider the larger picture surrounding them. When the international community first agreed to place sanctions upon Iran through the UN Security Council in response to their lack of cooperation with the IAEA in 2007, they were extremely targeted, focusing only on the clear-cut pieces of their nuclear production. Since that time, their scope have grown both in the Security Council and from the United States and its allies.

At the same time, the United States has had sanctions and embargoes of its own against Iran in place since 1979. There is no question that these are in place to punish the regime as a whole, with the intended effect of breaking their ability to have any sort of sway or power on the world stage. The place where the current standoff with Iran gets tricky is when you try to delineate the two sets of sanctions. On the one hand, you have the goal of a pause or complete halt of Iran’s nuclear program and cooperation with the IAEA in verifying its claimed peaceful nature. On the other hand, you have the United States’ broader goal of weakening Iran and countering its many, many uses of proxies and asymmetric force to push back against US aims and policies in the region. Over the last month, we’ve seen a blending and merging of the two into one homogenous mass of punishment where it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends.

The United States is not making this any easier, in overtly lobbying its allies to unilaterally up pressure against Iran, including long-sought embargoes on oil. This leads one to wonder whether it is in the national interest of the US to separate the two more forcefully. Increased pressure on Iran on all fronts does have the possibility of a greater willingness, in Washington calculus, that Tehran will change its behavior on any range of issues beyond its nuclear program. However, seeking to advance goals beyond those that can be resolved through the P5+1 negotiations hinders the United States’ case for continuing and increasing the sanctions regime. The national security and foreign policy components of the government need to find a way to make clear the distinction between the two movements. Mission creep away from merely slowing or halting Iran’s nuclear program is unacceptable to Tehran, and in fact serves as a greater impetus to want a nuclear weapon. If the regime feels that the only way to survive is to produce a nuclear weapon or face economic ruin, you can bet that if I were them? I’d be racing for full nuclear capacity.

January 6, 2012

Rial Talk on Iranian Sanctions

Iran is hurting. Bad. That is one thing that is becoming exceptionally clear as we move into 2012. The real question that’s on most people’s lips is “will the pressure on Tehran actually work to change the state’s behavior”? That is, that’s the question on most people who actually are paying attention to the issue are asking. As far as everyone else, they’re asking “are we going to war with Iran?”, a question I plan to look at next post. Nobody can dispute that the sanctions placed upon Iran are extremely tough in nature; while short of a full economic embargo, many areas of the Iranian economy have now been targeted by national and supranational governments and entities.

The European Union has tentatively agreed to ban Iranian oil exports; Japan is seeking to step up their sanctions game to be near the same-level as those imposed by the United States. Even China is doing Iran no favors, as it attempts to extract further price concessions from Tehran on the oil it imports.The entirety of the efforts makes the histrionics of the Republican Presidential campaigns over Iran seem baffling once you look at the scope and their effect. There does exist a divide among academics and analysts on whether the sanctions will have their intended effect, bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table on their nuclear program and eventually forego its path towards nuclear weapons. On one end of the argument, Fareed Zakaria had an op-ed in The Washington Post the other day, espousing the current weakness of the Iranian regime. The sanctions, in Zakaria’s opinion, are having precisely the outcome we wanted, an Iran sapped of strength.

On the other end of the spectrum, some believe that the US has gone too far in our stance, such as Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney, who believe that the only possible outcome that the sanctions can hope to produce is regime change and nothing less. Vali Nasr similarly argues that international pressure will make conflict more, not less, likely. In doing so, he notes that the previous stoic endurance of Western sanctions has been broken, and has been replaced with an upswing of bellicose rhetoric and action:

It wasn’t preordained that Iran would opt for battle. For much of the past year, its leaders have debated how best to deal with Western pressure. The alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which U.S. officials uncovered in October and blamed on Iran, suggests a faction has been making the case for direct confrontation with the West. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had hoped the September release of two Americans, hikers arrested by Iranian authorities and charged as spies, would shield Iran from further pressure and even create a diplomatic opening with the U.S. on the eve of his trip to the UN. Instead, Ahmadinejad went home empty-handed.

Iran’s rulers believe the new Middle East is a greater strategic challenge to the U.S. than to Iran. For the U.S., the region will be far less pliable under rising Islamists than it was under secular dictators. As those Islamists take control of governments from Morocco to Egypt, new opportunities arise for Tehran to forge diplomatic and economic ties. Consequently, the Iranian regime thinks it can counter international pressure on its nuclear activities long enough to get to a point of no return on a weapons program. Rather than discourage this aggressive Iranian position, U.S. policy is encouraging it, making a dangerous military confrontation more likely. There are no easy options for dealing with Iran, but not persisting in a failing strategy is a good place to start.

I will agree with the idea that Iran is being backed into a corner and that makes the chance of rhetoric spilling over into action all the more likely. Despite that, I have to question the idea that were the pressure of Iran less that this would make them more amenable to demands that it freeze its nuclear program. Likewise, the fact remains that Iranian rhetoric against us, be it vocal or muted, would not preclude Tehran from continuing its use of proxies to strike against United States assets abroad, which seems rather aggressive to me. Further, the main point that Nasr fails to note in his piece is that for many in the national security community the current course of action is the soft option for influencing Iranian decision making. Iran has time and again over the past decade made offers of reconciliation, only to either be spurned by the West as being unserious or to have the decisions collapse upon reaching Tehran.

What’s more, the latest effort by President Obama, the best chance that Iran has had in years to reset relations, was scoffed at, leading Iran down its current path. The US strategy also has included a direct outreach to the Iranian people or at least attempts to do so, leaving me to wonder what policies Nasr and Maloney have in mind to discourage Iran’s aggression. I am most likely one of the largest proponents of strong diplomatic efforts that you will ever meet, but at some point sticks are necessary if offers of carrots are rejected. If we really do want to prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear program, an argument that few would disagree with even if the overall effect of Iran succeeding is hotly debated, the further options available to the United States beyond its current strategy all fall much heavily upon overt and covert military abilities.

Ali Vaez has it right, that in dealing with Khamenei, we can’t simply assume that the current strategy will work without planning for all contingencies. The Ayatollah, while holding supreme command of the country, does not have the best strategic instincts known to man. We’ll assume that Iran as a state and Khamenei as a leader will act in a rational manner, which is to say that choices that prompt eradication of their existence in their respective forms will be avoided. However, the idea that Khamenei will act in a predictable fashion is to give him far too much credit. If we’re only focused on the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program as a goal, and not a total change of its behavior as a state, there must be a respectable “out” available to them. As luck would have it, such an out exists: the conditions laid out in the Security Council resolutions passed on the Iranian nuclear program all list the measures that must be taken by Iran to satisfy both the UN and the IAEA on its program. None stipulate that if they are able to prove its peaceful nature that the country must still dismantle its program. If Iran wants nuclear energy as badly as it claims, it must take the steps of a responsible state to prove its intentions.

Finally, one has to note that many articles and thought-pieces on the overall effect of Iranian sanctions gloss over the range and scope of the targeted facets of the Iranian economy. As Colum Lynch pointed out several weeks ago, it’s striking to see how far the common wisdom surrounding sanctions has changed over the past few years:

U.S. and European diplomats, meanwhile, have lauded the effect of tougher sanctions, saying they have begun to inflict real pain on outlaw regimes. In Syria, trade and investment is off 50 percent and the economy is expected to shrink by as much as 12 to 20 percent this year, according to a report by the New York Times that showed evidence that the sanctions, while hitting the regime’s financial backers, were also having an impact on ordinary people.

But the humanitarian cost of sanctions has not figured in the U.S. debate on sanctions. In a Senate hearing last week, not a single administration official or U.S. lawmaker even mentioned the potential humanitarian impact of oil sanctions on Iranian civilians. Instead, they explored ways to promote Iranian freedoms, including proposals to prevent Iran from jamming radio frequencies or blocking Internet, Twitter and Facebook access.

As a sum, national and international sanctions have now moved swiftly beyond the original pressure points of the first UN Security Council embargoes launched over half a decade ago. In the original round, Iran found itself under the effect of more far targeted efforts in the provisions of SC/1737, which only focused on Iran’s nuclear program and the assets of those involved. That limitation quickly was stripped away, as first an arms embargo was imposed in SC/1747, a travel ban and an expanded freeze on Iranian assets. Round three, SC/1803, upped the call for states to monitor Iranian banks, ships, aircraft and individuals, but it was Round Four that have done the most damage. Under Resolution 1929, the Islamic Republic was banned from participating in any activities related to ballistic missiles, tightened the arms embargo, among a host of other punitive financial measures. So far, all of these have been focused on Iran’s nuclear development and the pieces of their armed services which could easily be converted to a military nuclear program. The national sanctions that are set to go into effect go beyond those limits, striking at the core of the Iranian economy.

As of now, the humanitarian scope of the new measures that the United States is launching against the Iranian Central Bank and the coming partial and total oil embargoes have gone undiscussed. There will be no “Oil for Food” program for Iran, not after the telling lessons of the 1990s and Baghdad’s amazing ability to circumvent those measures. Nor is there any indication such a program on the minds of Western officials. With the rial currently fluctuating on the market, having dipped to a low of 17,000 against the dollar, the price of commodities has skyrocketed inside Iran in recent months. Food costs alone have increased 40% in recent days. It pains me to know that life won’t be easy for these people who have no say in who rules them, but I can’t see any better strategy in attempting to influence those protectors of the Revolution. It is my firmest hope that Iran chooses to legitimately return to negotiations rather than attempt to bluster its way through international sanction or launch actual kinetic action by the state against the US and its allies. Despite my hopes, no matter which choice of action Iran takes moves forward, there is one group sure to suffer in the near-term: the Iranian people.

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?

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.