While the world looks on, horrified, at the daily images of dead Syrians, the United Nations is exposed for the umpteenth time as a collection of strange bedfellows that may not even agree on what time of day it is, were it put to a vote. In the late ’80s, the late great Fela referred to them as ‘disunited United Nations’, and it is as true today as it was 20 years ago, and perhaps it will never change.
A Security Council vote to bring the full pressure to bear on Bashar Al-Assad, the soft spoken butcher, to end the violence was vetoed for the third time. Those two nations have firmly blocked any real action to bring the situation under control. In his remarks, Vitali Churkin, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN said the proposed resolution ignored the ‘realities on the ground’. Let us take a few moments to have a nuanced discussion on what these realities are.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, and the exit of the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, other peoples across the Middle East began to demand their own dictators leave. Assad brutally put down these protests even more than Gaddafi did, but instead of it going away, people began to arm themselves in self defence. These rebels, some of whom were deserters from the army, called themselves the Free Syrian Army and fought back against the regime. Their resistance was met with even more brutality, culminating in massacres in cities like Homs and Houla. So, what started out as peaceful protests 16 months ago, has become a full blown civil war.
The inability of the rest of the world to call Assad to order is a big part of the reason for this escalation. Indeed, action would have been taken by now, were it not for the twin police states of Russia and China. There are reasons for their actions: Russia sells weapons to Syria, and hence has a vested interest in the survival of the current regime, but both countries are united on this issue in a much more fundamental way. Since January 2011, regime change has occurred in countries were it once seemed unlikely. Seeing images of one dictator after another being toppled will embolden those who desire change, and establishing a pattern of UN sanctioned regime change may yet see such actions taken against them. Because of this, Russia and China will not back any action to sanction or remove a despot ever again.
In their defence however, they level a charge against the US of using UN resolutions to carry out regime change, and this reputation has further reduced the leverage America can apply. However, away from the largely meaningless diplomatic wars of attrition, the Syrian people have taken matters into their own hands. Helped by weapons from a number of Arab states, and perhaps the CIA – the Free Syrian Army is increasingly better organised, and better able to strike. Last Wednesday, Syria’s defence minister Daoud Rajha was killed by a suicide bomber in the centre of Damascus, along with Assef Shawkat and Hassan Turkmani, two other high ranking members of government. Three weeks ago, a long time backer of the Assad family, the Tlass family, defected. Their support was important in stabilising Bashar’s regime after his father died in 2000.
The Tlass family are Sunni, which is the ethnic stock of 85% of the Muslim world. Assad is an Alawite, a minority who have had to resort to brutality in order to maintain their power. Iran, dominated by Shiites, another minority, is in an alliance with Syria. In essence, Syria has become the epicentre of a battle along ethnic and political fronts. The Shi’a and Alawites (both minorities) are in one corner, with Russia and China providing political cover, and the Sunnis are in the other corner, whose interests happen to align with those of the US.
It is now easy to see that this conflict holds the potential for a more destabilising effect across the Middle East. What would help matters is that there are people ready to take over in the event of Assad’s exit. Right now, the Syria’s political opposition are very divided and are not ready to step in. On the other hand, the amount of blood on Assad’s hands makes his position as Syrian leader untenable, to say the least.
Perhaps this is what the ambassador meant by ‘realities on the ground’. The preparations for a post-Assad Syria should be underway in earnest, because not only will any peace plan with him in charge fail, but he might not even come out of this alive. Russia and China need to direct their energies toward ensuring a legitimate alternative to Assad is brought forth, instead of backing a losing horse.
The comments of King Abdullah of Jordan to CNN, are ominous: ‘the realities on the ground may have overtaken us, therefore the clock is ticking and we have reached the point where the political option is too late.’