WASHINGTON – Following a failed bid to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for regime change in Syria, Washington is considering other means to influence events on the ground, as the country slips ever closer toward civil war.
As the Syrian uprising nears the one-year mark, increasing violence at the hands of the Syrian regime has led to greater calls for international intervention to stop the bloodshed and force President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Though originally evincing a strong anti-interventionist platform, the Syrian National Council, the purported leaders of the Syrian uprising, have gradually shifted to a position that calls for direct international intervention as the only means to stop the country from sliding into civil war. The UN currently estimates the death toll over the past year of unrest at more than 5,000.
A recent statement from the Security Council called on “everyone around the world to speak up and do something to stop the bloodshed of innocent Syrians”, while condemning Russia’s unwillingness to terminate its robust military relationship with the Syrian regime.
Setbacks at the UN
Attempts to coordinate international action were dealt a significant blow on Sunday when Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on Assad to cede power to the vice president as part of process leading to a government of national unity.
The Russian and Chinese ambassadors justified their vetoes as a defense of state sovereignty, eliciting pointed responses from their US and French counterparts.
United States ambassador Susan Rice stated – and tweeted – that she was “Disgusted that Russia and China prevented the #UN Security Council from fulfilling its sole purpose.”
Following the vote, the council issued a statement calling for “empathizers around the world to take all political, economic and diplomatic measures with countries that have hampered the issuance of the UNSC resolution” including “direct economic boycott, terminating cooperative trade agreements, and re-evaluating relationships”.
Washington has also been weighing a number of other punitive, symbolic and humanitarian actions.
On Monday, the State Department announced that it would be closing the US Embassy in Damascus, sending its entire staff back to the US.
A press statement cited the recent violence in Damascus which “has raised serious concerns that our embassy is not sufficiently protected from armed attack”, while assuring that “ambassador [Robert] Ford has left Damascus but he remains the United States ambassador to Syria and its people”.
There has also been some discussion on the humanitarian responsibilities of the US government, and a recent briefing hosted by congresswoman Sue Myrick aimed to address the ways in which the government could alleviate the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syrian refugee communities bordering the country, as well as in Syria itself.
Heavy sanctions, a decline in diplomatic and economic relations and the Syrian government’s own budget reprioritization have caused basic food prices to skyrocket in Syria, and several regions report acute shortages of food, medicine and electricity.
The refugee camps operating predominantly in Turkey do not appear to be faring much better, and scattered reports detail similar shortages of basic necessities, all amid poor weather conditions.
Arming the rebels
Meanwhile, the failure at the Security Council has increased calls in Washington for independent action on Syria to influence the course of events on the ground.
Shortly after the Security Council vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a coalition of “friends of a democratic Syria” to coordinate efforts to remove Assad from power.
“We will work with the friends of a democratic Syria around the world to support the opposition’s peaceful political plans for change,” Clinton said, raising the possibility that Western powers may sponsor arms and training for rebel groups in a manner reminiscent of the Contact Group on Libya, which helped fund and arm the Libyan Transitional Council last year.
Though there appears to be little appetite for direct military involvement as of yet, many voices within the government, such as Senator Joseph Lieberman, have openly called for the provision of weapons, intelligence and other military aid to Syrian rebels, particular to the armed army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army.
A number of observers have been troubled by the ever-increasing militarization of the conflict, and many see the involvement of Western military aid as a worrying development that may distort the nature of the uprising.
Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Studies program at George Mason University and co-founder of the popular website Jadaliyya, recently wrote an article decrying the ways that foreign intervention may undermine the goals of the initial uprising, prompting a heated exchange between proponents and opponents of foreign intervention.
In a recent interview with al-Jazeera English, Haddad warned that the Syrian uprising had been gradually transformed “from a legitimate domestic fight against dictatorship to something far more cynical”. Haddad and others have accused the US of supporting the Syrian uprising to suit its own regional interests, while ignoring or undermining similar uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.
Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, capitalized on this contradiction during his remarks on Saturday, asking Rice why she failed to feel equally “disgusted” with the numerous US vetoes protecting Israeli military operations in Gaza, Lebanon and against the Palestinian people in general.
Washington’s dealings with the Syrian regime are also complicated by a darker ongoing relationship between the two governments.
In an apparent warning to those in the West advocating the overthrow of the regime, Syria reportedly released Abu Musad al-Suri, the alleged mastermind behind the July 7, 2005, London bombings, from the prison in which he was held under the Central Intelligence Agency’s extraordinary rendition program.
The release is believed to be an implicit statement on the consequences of abandoning the Syrian regime and a reminder of the ties enjoyed by the US and Syrian governments in the George W Bush administration’s “war on terror”.
Given the recent escalation of violence by both the regime and its foes, as well as the Syrian regime’s willingness to use all available options to stay in power, many take these developments to suggest that further international intervention will only stoke the embers of civil war.
“The veto will diminish the relevance of the United Nations and increase the odds that Syria will descend even further into a civil war fueled by a flood of weapons and aid to all parties,” wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, on his foreignpolicy.com blog after the Security Council vote
“The UN’s failure won’t end regional and international efforts to deal with the escalating brutality, but it will now force those efforts into other, less effective and less legitimate channels. The already slim prospects for a ‘soft landing’ in Syria, with a political transition deal ending the violence, are now closer to complete collapse.”
(Inter Press Service)