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Russia as Smokescreen

Cynicism Around Syria

by VIJAY PRASHAD

Rehearsed statements filled the stale air of the UN Security Council on the last day of January. The Arab League’s Nabil el-Araby pleaded with the Council to adopt a draft resolution on Syria furnished by the Moroccan delegation to the UN. The Moroccan resolution is based on a report by the Arab League’s human rights mission to Syria. This draft called for an immediate cessation of violence in Syria and a national dialogue. “We are attempting to avoid any foreign intervention,” el-Araby told the Council, “especially military intervention.”

The League’s human rights monitoring mission had presented a report, which was tabled in the Council but not discussed (an omission mentioned repeatedly by Syria’s ambassador Bashar Ja’afari). Reading the Arab League’s report is disquieting. It mentions the Syrian governments heavy-handed attacks on the protestors, but raises questions about the latter’s intentions and methods. The report details the “bombing of buildings, trains carrying fuel, vehicles carrying diesel oil and explosions targeting the police” conducted by groups affiliated to the rebel’s Free Syrian Army. It says of this “armed entity” that it attacked the “Syrian security forces and citizens, causing the Government to respond with further violence.” The report is light on its criticism of the government, which is curious given the character of the media reports elsewhere. The League’s report notes that some members of its mission (the Saudis and the Jordanians) “broke the oath they had taken” and gave an “exaggerated account of events” to officials from their countries.

The leader of the Arab League’s mission is General Mohamed Ahmad al-Dabi, a stalwart supporter of Sudan’s President Umar al-Bashir. Questions remain about General al-Dabi’s role in the suppression of the uprising in Dar Massalit in February 1999. Why was al-Dabi chosen to lead the mission? It is clear to close observers of the Gulf that while al-Dabi was Sudan’s ambassador to Qatar (1999-2004) he became close to its ruling family. The Qataris are exerting themselves in the region, and assumed that al-Dabi would do their bidding. He turned in a report that did not please them.

The Qataris have taken a hostile position to the Arab League in general. Last May, the Arab League rejected Qatar’s Abdelrahman bin Hamad al-Attiya in favor of el-Araby as head of the body. This was payback from many of the countries for the Qataris’ role with NATO in the UN Security Council on Libya. Sitting next to el-Araby in the UN Security Council on January 31 was Qatar’s Foreign Affairs minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani who was furious with what he saw as the League’s timidity. The League’s efforts “have been in vain,” he said, suggesting that the time had come for some kind of “intervention.” The Jordanians left the human rights mission, and the Saudi member of the mission Saudi Shura Council member Dr. Ibrahim Suleiman noted, “It is not right that we should be false witnesses to what is happening in Syria.” The Gulf Arabs did not want al-Dabi’s report to be discussed.

The Qataris are eager to install their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood to authority in the region. They have funded the Brotherhood lavishly from Tunisia to Egypt. They would like to move their influence into the Mashriq, bringing their influence to bear against their principle enemy: Iran. Here events are more complex than they will admit. It was all very well to toss out Qaddafi, whom the G7, NATO and the Gulf Arabs hated equally. It is far harder to tackle a country that borders Israel.

Israel’s Border Guard

The Arab League’s el-Araby need not have been worried about the Security Council sanctioning intervention. This is not on the cards. The Russians, burned by the example of UNSC resolution 1973 for Libya, are unwilling to allow any open-ended statement from the Council. They seem to have come to terms with the reality that any Council authorization for intervention by anyone means military action by NATO. No other power has the military capability to act with the kind of force demonstrated by NATO. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin approved the Arab League’s mission as a mechanism to pressure the regime into a political dialogue with the opposition. In the midst of this violence, Churkin noted, talk of reform of Syrian institutions is a “theoretical conversation.”

Is Russia holding back a condemnation of Syria in the UN Security Council as the NATO media suggests? Churkin told the Moscow media that the Moroccan resolution was “missing the most important thing: a clear clause ruling out the possibility that the resolution could be used to justify military intervention in Syrian affairs from outside.” Absent such a clause “we will not allow it to be passed.” This is how we get to the idea of the Russian veto over international (namely, NATO) action in Syria.

But if the Russians are standing on principle, why is the United States not more aggressive on Syria? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, “Syria is a unique situation that requires its own approach, tailored to the specific circumstances occurring there. And that is exactly what the Arab League has proposed – a path for a political transition that would preserve Syria’s unity and institutions.” On February 28, 2011, Clinton went before the UN Human Rights Council to offer the US position on Libya: “We have seen Colonel Gaddafi’s security forces open fire on peaceful protestors. They have used heavy weapons on unarmed civilians. Mercenaries and thugs have been turned loose to attack demonstrators. Through their actions, they have lost the legitimacy to govern. And the people of Libya have made themselves clear: It is time for Gaddafi to go – now, without further violence or delay.” Why doesn’t Clinton simply substitute al-Assad for Colonel Gaddafi and Syria for Libya? Clinton sees the Syrian case as much more complex. Why is Syria more “unique” than Libya?

In Beirut last month I asked Fawwaz Trabulsi (author of the 2007 A History of Modern Lebanon) just this question. Trabulsi, who is starting a new journal called Bidayat, has been in touch with various currents inside and around Syria. He tells me that the problem for Syria is its location. The Arab Spring has transformed the security arrangements carefully constructed by Israel (with US oversight). The fall of Mubarak in Egypt leaves in doubt the 1979 peace treaty, and so raises questions about Israel’s Southwestern border. New energy in the Palestinian movement threatens the stability of the West Bank, and despite the pacification policy through settlements and walls, there is a sense that political fissures might open up at any point. Lebanon and Israel remain in an uneasy state, with the border patrolled by a weak-kneed UN force (the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, deployed in 1978 should no longer have interim status). This leaves Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime has operated as Israel’s loyal border guard. Israel is not willing to see a violent regime change in Syria. There is simply no credible or reliable alternative to al-Assad. Neither Israel nor the US, therefore, has aggressively sought to remove al-Assad from power. That energy is reserved for the drumbeats against Iran.

Writing in the Israeli paper Haaretz, Zvi Bar’el writes that Washington and Tel Aviv do not wish the precipitous departure of al-Assad. “He is seen as a safety valve against a violent attack by Hezbollah on Israel or against its physical takeover of Lebanon. He has also made known his disagreements with Iran following the controversial visit of Ahmadinejad to Lebanon [in 2010].” One member of the Israeli cabinet told the Washington Post, “We know Assad. We knew his father. Of course, we’d love to have a democratic Syria as our neighbor. But do I think that’s going to happen? No.”

The US and Israel are currently hiding behind the Russians (and to some extent the Chinese) in the UN Security Council. None of them have any interest in the removal of al-Assad from power. To their minds, Syria should not have a Libyan solution but a Yemeni one: the violence will simmer, the opposition will tire, then al-Assad will be allowed to create a successor in name only who will retain the lineaments of the regime intact but will provide a new face for Syria. Just as the “new” Yemen cannot be allowed to be a threat to Saudi Arabia, the “new” Syria cannot be allowed to upset the Israeli applecart.

VIJAY PRASHAD is Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. This Spring he will publish two books, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press) and Uncle Swami: Being South Asian in America (New Press). He is the author of Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New Press), which won the 2009 Muzaffar Ahmed Book Prize.