A divided international community gives Assad time to crack down on pro-democracy protesters
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has friends in strange places.
Support from Iran as well as militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas, Syria’s closest allies, is par for the course. To them, Mr. Assad’s departure would risk losing a key friend and supporter and further their own international isolation.
More surprising, however, is the fact that the Iranian and militant preference to see Mr. Assad remain in power is shared by the three countries most opposed to them—the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as, less surprisingly, permanent United Nations Security Council members Russia and China who distrust Western intentions and fear that Arab protesters may give their own people ideas.
The US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are opting for the devil they know rather than the one they don’t. To be sure, Washington would like to see Mr. Assad introduce reforms and is uneasy about the Syrian leader’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters. Israel, however, believes it fares best with authoritarian leaders.
All three fear that Mr. Assad’s demise could further destabilize the Middle East with ripple effects in Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf.
Europe is divided when it comes to Mr. Assad despite the fact that a European arms embargo against Syria takes effect on Tuesday and European leaders imposed sanctions on 13 senior Syrian security officials—including the president’s brother Maher al-Assad, Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Shaar and Mr. Assad’s businessman cousin, Rami Makhlouf—that would freeze their assets and ban them from travel in the EU.
Mr. Assad and his defense minister, Lt. General Ali Mohammad Habib Mahmoud, are likely to be exempted from the sanctions highlighting a north south split in European attitudes towards the Syrian leader. France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden favor blacklisting Mr. Assad while Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece and Cyprus want to keep their lines open to him. Estonia, although not a Mediterranean nation, agrees because of concern for the fate of seven Estonian cyclists who were kidnapped in March in Lebanon and are believed to be in Syria.
One litmus test of how serious the United States and Europe are about the sanctions will be whether they move against several of the sanctioned Syrian officials who are believed to be dual European or US nationals by opening legal proceedings against them or revoking their passports.
But even if the international community, including all five permanent security members, were to conclude that Syria and the world would be better off without Mr. Assad, they would find it difficult to engineer regime change.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), a prestigious Brussels-based think tank, concluded this week that there was little scope for the international community to influence Syria. It also cautioned that the European sanctions against Mr. Assad’s associates were likely to have little effect on the president. On the contrary, the sanctions could bolster the Syrian government’s claim that the protests that have already costs the lives of some 600 people were instigated by foreign forces.
“Outside actors possess little leverage, particularly at a time when the regime feels its survival is at stake. It has survived past periods of international isolation and likely feels it can weather the storm again. Broader sanctions run the dual risk of serving the regime by bolstering the claim that it is facing a foreign conspiracy and of harming ordinary citizens,” the ICG said in an analysis of the international community’s options.
The UN-sanctioned allied campaign against Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi has moreover strengthened Russian and Chinese resolve to prevent a repeat in Syria. Moscow and Beijing charge that the allies have overstepped their Security Council mandate to impose a no-fly zone on Libya with airstrikes on Mr. Qaddafi’s compound and against Libyan ground forces.
The Chinese and Russian foreign ministers agreed during recent talks that they would closely coordinate their positions on the anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
“We have agreed to coordinate our actions using the abilities of both states in order to assist the earliest stabilization and prevention of the further negative unpredictable consequences there,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after talks with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi. Mr. Lavrov said Russia and China shared the “identical position” that “every nation should determine its future independently without outside interference.”
The statement reflects a growing gap in confidence between Russia and China on the one hand and the United States, Britain and France on the other. Russia and China charge that the US and Europe have been less than transparent with regard to their real intentions in Libya.
In an interview on Russian television earlier this month, Mr. Lavrov accused the US and Europe of preparing for ground operations in Libya despite an explicit ban on such a move in the Security Council resolution authorizing the imposition of the no-fly zone. Mr. Lavrov suggested that the allies were pressuring UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to request them to protect UN humanitarian missions in Libya as a fig leaf for expanded military operations against Mr. Qaddafi.
For now, Mr. Assad is the laughing third. He enjoys the tacit support of both his friends and enemies and can count on divisions in the Security Council running too deep for the council’s permanent members to reach a consensus any time soon.
As a result, Russia and China are determined to ensure that Mr. Assad is not put in the same boat as Mr. Qaddafi out of fear that internationally endorsed regime change would create a dangerous precedent. They are likely to be supported this week by Central Asian nations grouped in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) whose foreign ministers they are meeting to prepare for an SCO summit in mid-June.
For Mr. Assad, this means that he has a window of opportunity to brutally squash the popular revolt against his regime. However, that window may only be open for a limited period of time. If he fails to succeed, public pressure on governments to step up efforts to halt the bloodshed could as yet force Western nations to rethink their position towards Mr. Assad and Russia and China to compromise.
(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)