Talk about Syria to officials in Washington, London or Moscow and you are likely to hear predictions of an even bigger bloodbath before the Assad regime is toppled.
One Obama administration official tells me that President Bashar al-Assad is “living on borrowed time.” Presumably, the borrowing of time has been made at the cost of daily massacres across Syria.
“ We give Assad between three months and two years, “ the American official tells me. “ However, stronger international action could shorten that period and reduce the cost in human lives.”
The question is: why doesn’t the international community take that “ stronger action” that Washington says is necessary?
The Syrian regime has already killed more people than its Libyan counterpart had done when the United Nations decided to sanction military intervention against Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
When the United Nations moved on Libya, Gaddafi had arrested a few dozen opponents. His fellow despot in Syria has jailed some 10,000 people, with many others classified as “missing.”
And the crisis in Syria is more of a threat to regional peace than the conflict that started in Libya last spring.
Syrian refugees are pouring into Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Cyprus, affecting the security of those countries. Inside Syria, an estimated 150,000 people have been driven out of their homes while scores of Kurdish villages, with an estimated population of half a million, are sealed off by security forces.
Assad has moved army units to the edge of the Turkish border in the disputed area known as Iskenderun, raising the risk of border clashes. With Iran also getting involved in support of Assad, both directly and through its Hezbollah agents in Lebanon, the crisis is assuming an even larger regional dimension.
So, why hasn’t the Security Council moved beyond a presidential statement condemning the massacres but promising no concrete action to stop them?
The answer I get from American and other Western officials is that Russia and China would veto any resolution committing the international community to action against the Assad regime. .
This amounts to what one might call the pre-emptive veto — we veto our own action on Syria for fear of being vetoed by Russia and/or China. By not raising the issue, Western democracies assume the responsibility for inaction. It’s odd logic and bad diplomacy.
First, we can’t know whether Russia or China would veto. Serious diplomacy can’t be built on mere guesses about intentions. Last week, I contacted the Russians with a question about the veto threat.
“ We cannot veto a text that has not even been written,” a senior Russian official, retorted. “ We remain open to whatever action that would help end the bloodshed in Syria.”
He then referred me to a strong statement by President Dmirty Medvedev in which the Russian leader predicts “ a sad fate” for the Syrian despot.
In other words, we don’t know for sure that Moscow would use its veto to help Assad continue killing the Syrian people.
In any case, the Security Council was never meant as merely a voting chamber: Its chief function is as the highest forum for raising and debating issues affecting regional and international peace.
Throughout much of the Cold War, Western democracies used the council to focus world attention on human rights and the Soviet regime’s oppression of nations in central and Eastern Europe.
Yes, the USSR used its veto 123 times, an all-time record. But each veto underlined Moscow’s failure to secure a majority, leaving it exposed and isolated.
Western democracies should take the Syria issue to the Security Council by offering a draft resolution in support of the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom. Once the draft is submitted and debated, Russia and China would have to choose to side with the Syrian people or back an obnoxious and increasingly isolated regime.
It’s not certain that Russia (and even less China) would use a veto to prop up Assad. But even if they did so, they couldn’t save a moribund regime.
Russia knows that by siding with Assad it would be siding with the Arab world’s losers. A veto on Syria could stir anti-Russian feelings from Marrakech to Muscat. Similar considerations persuaded Russia and China to abstain in the vote over Libya.
China would be even more reluctant to veto. To please its Pakistani ally, in 1972 China vetoed the admission of Bangladesh as a UN member. Beijing is still living with the consequences of that veto, one of only seven it has ever cast, as Bangladesh remembers that hostile act.
Another excuse used to justify lack of concrete action to stop Assad’s killing machine was the supposed “ Arab indifference”. Anyone skimming through the Arab media would immediately know that there is no indifference. Arab opinion in all its shades is solidly behind the Syrian people and adamantly opposed to the continuation of the Assad regime in any firm or shape. Apart from Hezbollah, an organ of the Iranian government in Lebanon, I know of no other Arab group that would justify the daily killings in Syria. The latest statement by the Gulf Cooperation Council nations is yet another indication that Arab opinion is not indifferent to the tragedy in Syria. In fact, only three of the 22 member states of the Arab League continue to maintain full ambassadorial relations with the Assad regime.
Even the Islamic Republic in Iran is beginning to have doubts about further investing in Assad’s shaky regime. For the first time, the official news agency IRNA is reporting moves by Turkey and other countries to stop the carnage in Syria along with statements critical of the Syrian regime.
The US and its allies lost a great deal of time over the illusory prospect of a reformist group emerging from within the Assad regime. Obama administration officials tell me that that illusion is now gone.
“The Assad regime cannot be reformed,” an Obama administration official tells me. “It must be replaced with a regime chosen by the Syrian people.”
Well, if that is the case, it is urgent to ensure UN support for a mix of diplomatic, economic and military action to bring change to Syria.
Western democracies should take the lead and call on the Security Council to protect the Syrian people against the Assad killing machine. Such la move would be a moral booster for Syrian freedom fighters and yet another reminder to the Assads that their days are numbered.