Syria is fast becoming a high stakes pawn in the jockeying for positions by the world’s major powers, the United States, Europe, Russia and China.
As casualties mount in Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, the United States and Europe are considering seeking Mr. Assad’s indictment on charges of war crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC). China remains aloof while Russia is projecting itself as a non-interventionist alternative to the West.
The net effect is that Mr. Assad can continue to brutally cling to power irrespective of the human and economic cost to Syria. Syrian security forces were reported to have stormed on Saturday yet another town on the Turkish border. Thousands of Syrians have already fled to safety in Turkey.
An indictment will hardly deter Mr. Assad much as it didn’t change the ways of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. Chinese aloofness and Russian non-interventionism means Mr. Assad has little to worry about.
For the West, Syria increasingly poses a moral as well as a political dilemma; for Russia and China it creates an opportunity to come out a winner irrespective of who emerges victorious not only in Syria but across the region.
“It is increasingly clear that President Assad has made his choice. But while continued brutality may allow him to delay the change that is underway in Syria, it will not reverse it,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an opinion piece published in Al Sharq Al Awsat.
She accused Mr. Assad of “embracing the repressive tactics of his ally Iran” and wrote that “Syria is headed toward a new political order” that should be shaped by the Syrian people.
The bottom line is however that Syrian protesters will have to achieve a new political order on their own steam and against the odds. The United States and Europe are seeking to hold their moral high ground without hitting Mr. Assad where it hurts.
While the West may be reluctant to intervene militarily much in the way it has done in Libya, it has yet to decide that it is time for Mr. Assad to go. Despite a declaration by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe that Mr. Assad had lost the legitimacy to govern Syria, American and European leaders remain inclined to opt for the devil they know rather than the one they don’t. Western leaders have stopped short of calling for Mr. Assad’s departure uncertain of who may succeed him. In short, Mr. Assad has at this point little to really fear from the West.
Meanwhile, the most immediate casualty of Russian and Chinese attitudes and Western indecisiveness is a European sponsored draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would have condemned the violence of Mr. Assad’s regime and called for the granting of access to humanitarian groups. Russia and China see the resolution as a first step towards a call for military intervention in Syria.
The message to Mr. Assad is that the international community is divided and paralyzed, allowing him to play both sides against the middle.
Mrs. Clinton failed in talks in Moscow on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to break the deadlock over the Security Council resolution that amounts to nothing more than a verbal condemnation void of punitive measures. Mrs. Clinton clearly felt that she was more likely to persuade Russia than China given that the latter was not on her travel itinerary.
Refugees in camps on the Turkish side of the Syrian border and protesters on the front line in Syria watch the jockeying for position over their backs with mounting incomprehension.
That doesn’t stop Russia and China from exploiting their plight.
Granted, both Russia and China feel betrayed by the West. They charge that the United States and Europe violated the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya imposed to protect civilian lives by gunning for the toppling of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
The presidents of Russia and China, Dmitry Medvedev and Hu Jintao issued a joint declaration in Moscow earlier this week berating unspecified nations for “the wilful interpretation and expanded application” of Security Council resolutions on Libya.
That may be true; nonetheless there is considerable mileage in it for both Russia and China. Both countries, but particularly Russia have long standing ties to regimes like that of Mr. Assad dating back to the days of the Soviet Union. Much of the weaponry Syrian forces employ in their crackdown is Russian in origin.
Both countries have an interest in keeping Mr. Assad in power. He has been a willing tool in thwarting Western ambitions in the Middle East. Mr. Assad’s value may however be significantly diminished. Syria’s grip for example, on the exile wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, is waning.
Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mishal, uncertain of where Syria is heading and facing demands for a greater say by Hamas’ Gaza wing, is cuddling up to post-revolution Egypt and last month accepted a reconciliation agreement with the group’s West Bank rival, Al Fatah headed by Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The agreement had long been on the table, but it took the anti-autocratic Arab revolt for Mr. Mishal to ink it.
Nonetheless, both autocrats and revolutionaries weary of foreign powers influencing their post-revolt governments’ policies, are likely to appreciate Russia’s positioning itself as a mediator rather than an interventionist like the West and China’s allowing the chips to fall where they fall. At least, that is what Russia and China are counting on.
As a result, Russia has kept its lines open to both Mr. Qaddafi’s regime and the NATO-backed rebels and has offered its good offices to mediate a resolution to the Libyan crisis. Russian ambassador to Libya Mikhail Margelov met in Tripoli on Thursday with Mr. Qaddafi’s prime minister, Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmudi, and Foreign Minister Abdel Ati Al-Obeidi.
Mr. Margelov emerged from the meeting calling for a diplomatic solution. He said Mr. Qaddafi was “not prepared to leave, and ...will talk about the country’s future only after a cease-fire.”
Mr. Margelov’s conclusion left little hope for successful mediation as rebel forces made advances on their march toward Tripoli.
Nonetheless, Mr. Qaddafi has his plate full with NATO and NAT-backed rebels even if Russia straddles the fence and China stands aside. Mr. Assad doesn’t as a result of Russian and Chinese attitudes and Western indecision. He can focus wholly on cracking down on protesters who have demonstrated remarkable resilience. For now, little on the horizon suggests that this will change.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)