Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 December 2011
Issue No. 1077
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Turning the screw

Russia's was the final twist that compelled Bashar Al-Assad to sign the Arab League peace plan, writes Graham Usher at the United Nations

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An image taken from amateur video shows men retrieving a body, in a rubbish strewn street in Homs, last week

On 19 December the Syrian government finally signed a protocol allowing observers to monitor an Arab League peace plan intended to end nine months of violence. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim said the signature became possible after the League had agreed to "70 per cent" of the changes sought by Damascus to the plan.

It's not clear what these changes are. The observers -- including governmental, non-governmental, media and security representatives ê" are free to visit protest hubs and flashpoints, though not "sensitive" military sites. They will have "security escorts" from the Syrian Interior Ministry but no other restrictions, said Al-Muallim.

And asked whether the signing meant Arab League sanctions on Syria would be lifted, League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi was succinct: "No", he said, because that would "require another meeting" of Arab Foreign Ministers, and none was scheduled.

Though the deal remains murky, it seems Damascus ceded more ground than it gained -- and for two reasons. One was an increasing shrillness by Arab Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia over Syria's stalling on a plan it had agreed to as far back as 2 November.

Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim warned that unless Syria allowed in the observers by 21 December he would ask the League to vote on referring the initiative to the Security Council: for Damascus -- and others -- that could be the first step on a long descent to an internationalisation of the crisis.

Second, Syria understood that, should the initiative reach the Council, it could no longer rely on a Russian veto. "Russia's position is clear. They advised us to sign the protocol and we implemented that," said Al-Muallim.

Moscow's position has been becoming clearer by the hour. On 15 December it submitted a draft Security Council resolution on the Syrian crisis. While ruling out foreign intervention -- and noting a degree of equivalence between the violence of the regime and that of the opposition -- the text evinced some of the harshest language yet used by Russia against its Arab ally.

It condemned "the disproportionate use of force by the Syrian authorities", and called on them to end the "suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association". Above all, it called for implementation of the Arab peace initiative, urging in particular Syrian compliance with the observer mission.

Russia's move surprised everyone, especially the European Union states on the Council. In October -- with China -- it had vetoed an EU resolution on the Council for using language hardly less harsh. And as recently as last week Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced the "West" as "immoral" for backing "armed groups" in Syria whose "goal is to instigate a humanitarian catastrophe and so to obtain a pretext for foreign intervention".

Why the pivot? Russia watchers suggest two reasons. First, Moscow was apparently stung by a briefing given to the Council on 12 December by the UN High Commissioner for Human rights Navi Pillay. (It was based on a report which also inspired a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Syria on 19 December, and passed by 133 member states to 11 with 43 abstentions).

Pillay said the Syrian regime was likely guilty of crimes against humanity through its brutal suppression of largely peaceful protests that had not only left 5,000 people dead but evidenced widespread and systematic abuse, including the murder, torture, rape and imprisonment of children. "Inaction by the international community", she noted, had "emboldened the Syrian authorities" by ensuring that the abusers went "unpunished": a clear swipe at the Russian and Chinese veto.

Second, the more Russia remained Syria's lonely protector at the UN, the more it saw its influence wane in the region. On 27 November the Arab League sanctioned and suspended Damascus for its refusal to abide by the peace plan, penalties Russia criticised. And Moscow could only watch passively as Turkey played host to the various Syrian opposition groups, and threatened intervention should the crisis in Syria degenerate into a full-blown civil war.

By drafting its own text Russia moved from spoiler to mediator while preventing sanctions and/or military intervention becoming part of any new Council resolution. It was Moscow's "last chance to stake out some influence", said one analyst.

But influence means aligning with the Arab League and turning the screw on Damascus. On 16 December Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa was called to Moscow "for a serious conversation", said a Kremlin source quoted by Russian news agencies. And "anyone who thinks we are going to praise the vice-president or pat him on the head is wrong."

That was 24 hours after Russia had circulated its draft resolution at the UN, and 24 hours before the Al-Assad regime signed a protocol it had spent the past six weeks filibustering.

Syria's acceptance of the Arab League plan may defer an internationalisation of the crisis, not least through a non-tabling of Russia's resolution. But regionalisation may be just as rough.

The Arab peace initiative not only requires 100 or so observers to enter most parts of Syria, including those like Deraa, Homs and Deir Al-Zour under de facto rebel control. It should also mean investigation of alleged massacres by Syrian forces, such as the killing of 70 army defectors in Idlib province on 19 December. And it is supposed to observe the immediate end to violence; the withdrawal of the Syrian army from towns and villages; the release of political prisoners; accelerated political reform; and national dialogue with the opposition.

Should Bashar Al-Assad's regime renege on any one of those pledges, the crisis may come again before the Security Council. And should action there become the Arab consensus, the Syrian dictator may learn what others have learned before him: that while Russia may have permanent interests in Syria, it no longer has permanent friends.

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